By Jami Westerhold, American Forests’ director of strategic initiatives
Our nation’s forests are facing an unprecedented epidemic. More than 41.7 million acres of trees across the western United States have been destroyed by bark beetles. Even more astonishing is that this number does not include death from other insects — like the emerald ash borer or gypsy moth — that are attacking other areas of our nation’s forests. Insect infestations impact forest health; water quality and quantity; fish and wildlife biodiversity and habitat; recreation; timber production; and real-estate values in a variety of ways. As the current level of insect destruction has exceeded previously recorded levels, Congress has begun introducing legislation on this issue:
- The Good Neighbor Forestry Act would authorize federal agencies to enter into cooperative agreements allowing state foresters to provide certain restoration and protection services with on-the-ground management tools to undertake activities to treat insect-infected trees, reduce hazardous fuels and restore or improve forests and other ecosystems.
- The National Forest Insect and Disease Emergency Act would provide additional tools and resources to federal agencies to slow the spread of the beetles and address the safety threats posed by dead, standing trees. Under this act, U.S. Forest Service rangers could work with local communities to prioritize “insect-emergency areas” needing treatment. It includes incentives to convert the vegetation removed from forests to biofuels and measures to restore forests after an infestation.
- The National Forest Emergency Response Act and Depleting Risk from Insect Infestation, Soil Erosion, and Catastrophic Fire Act of 2012 — both introduced due to the extreme fire hazards and unsafe conditions resulting from pine beetle infestation and other stressors — would require the secretary of agriculture to declare a state of emergency in each designated state and immediately implement hazardous fuels-reduction projects.
- In June, the U.S. Senate passed its version of the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012 — the “Farm Bill.” The Senate version included several critical provisions related to forest health that encourages more efficient and effective treatments for insect and disease infestations and would allow federal agencies to contract with small businesses to remove forest products from federal land. It also dedicated $200 million for beetle-mitigation efforts to remove beetle-killed trees from high-risk areas.
- In August, the House Natural Resources Committee passed the Healthy Forest Management Act of 2012 with provisions expanding states’ authority to address the bark beetle and other forest-health conditions. Under this bill, governors could designate “high-risk areas,” and the U.S. Forest Service would be required to implement emergency hazardous fuels-reduction projects.
Only the last two bills listed have progressed since their introduction, and at the time of American Forests’ publication, their destinies were still pending.
Though this list is not exhaustive, there is something notably missing from the discussion. While each bill speaks about collaboratively removing beetle-killed trees and hazardous fuels reduction, there is marked silence supporting efforts to proactively prevent beetle outbreaks. Congress needs to introduce legislation addressing the root of the problem. While insect infestations leave behind a trail of dead trees — which could increase risk of catastrophic fire — forest restoration efforts must include more than the removal of trees. Safety is always a top priority, but the management of forest landscapes should also focus on promoting diverse and resilient forests.
American Forests believes the scale of the infestations requires an approach that is innovative, science-based and collaborative. Our Endangered Western Forests initiative is a comprehensive landscape-scale approach to forest management (see Saving a Species for more on this initiative). We will work with a diverse spectrum of landowners to encourage collaborative solutions to protect and restore the iconic western landscapes. We are developing partnerships to leverage research, workforce and technical capacities. American Forests will also continue to encourage appropriate and effective congressional attention on this issue. Please visit the Action Center on our website to send a letter to Congress requesting a proactive approach to forest management in the West.