2012-06-24

Bark beetle kill leads to more severe fires, right? Well, maybe

The lodgepole pine and spruce-fir forests of the Intermountain West are reeling under a one-two punch: more frequent and severe wildfires, and an epidemic of tree-killing bark beetles.

Once-green forests are filled with red dying trees and patches of gray dead ones. From a distance, the effect is oddly beautiful. Up close, people often experience a visceral jolt, followed by a sense of alarm: Can't somebody do something?

Steve Currey has fielded his share of anxious phone calls. "A few years ago," he says, "we were under a lot of public pressure to stop the beetles from spreading further." Currey is director of bark beetle operations on the sprawling Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in Wyoming and Colorado. The outbreak there started in northwestern Colorado in the mid-1990s and moved northeast to central Wyoming. "The beetles aren't killing every tree," Currey says, "but they are killing a majority of mature lodgepole pine, and we've lost half our limber pine, too." More than 116 million acres in the North American Rocky Mountains have been affected. "People are beginning to understand that this thing is too big to stop."