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Beetles Eat at Sawtooth Pines in Natural Cycle

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, July 21, 2004

Stanley residents fear the next stage: a wildfire that could destroy homes

(Joe Jaszewski photo) U.S. Forest Service Forester Alan Young stands in an area of the Sawtooth National Forest that has been attacked by mountain pine beetles. STANLEY -- A patchwork of red trees breaks up the once all-green forest that reaches into the heights of one of Idaho's most scenic vistas, the Sawtooth Range overlooking this tiny mountain town.

The strangely beautiful trees are the sign of a dying forest infested with millions of tiny insects the size of grains of rice. Mountain pine beetles have killed up to 80 percent of the trees over a large section of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

For two years, loggers have been cutting down dead and dying trees near homes and around campgrounds in the scenic 756,000-acre area that attracts 2 million visitors a year. The thinning campaign has reduced the threat of fire to the homes but still leaves the vast forest a tinderbox. About 1,250 acres will be thinned or logged this summer.

Residents like Sue Kurth of Iron Creek mourn the loss of the view that has defined this alpine recreation retreat. They also fear the inevitable next stage in the natural cycle of the lodgepole pine forest a huge wildfire.

"It's really a Catch-22," Kurth said. "I want them to do something. I don't want a fire, but I also don't want logging trucks driving up into the wilderness."

The destruction the native insects cause is no threat to the ecological health of the forest, Forest Service officials say. But the damage that comes in the 60- to 80-year natural cycle conflicts with human values, including scenic beauty and economic use, and increases the threat of fire.

Led by the Sawtooth Society, a bipartisan advocacy group for the recreation area, a wide coalition of local governments and organizations, ranging from Custer County to the Idaho Conservation League, wants the Forest Service to take more aggressive steps. They want it to step in to prevent a huge fire that could burn from south of Alturas Lake across the Sawtooth Front to Stanley and devastate the place they love.

"We felt they needed to address the wildfire threat across the broader landscape," said Bob Hayes, executive director of the Sawtooth Society.

The Forest Service is looking at a second phase of actions it can take to reduce the threat of fire to resources and places people want protected. They can't stop the natural cycle of the forest, which includes beetle infestations and eventually large fires.

There are opportunities to log and thin specific areas to make it easier for firefighters to protect popular areas such as Redfish Lake, said Jim Rineholt, a U.S. Forest Service forester on loan to the Idaho Department of Lands.

Beetle infestations are a regular occurrence in lodgepole pine forests, which are spread across Idaho's high elevation forests. A similar infestation has killed thousands of acres of trees in the Elk City area of north central Idaho.

An infestation in the Targhee National Forest in eastern Idaho led the Forest Service to clearcut the area through the end of the 1980s. Environmentalists and cabin owners complained about the clearcuts, which ran as a straight line along the Yellowstone National Park boundary and could be seen from space. In 1988, more than a million acres of forests burned in and around Yellowstone, including hundreds of thousands of acres of beetle-killed lodgepole.

Today, in both the Targhee and in Yellowstone, the forest has been largely regenerated with trees rising more than 20 feet high in some areas. Older residents of the Sawtooth Valley say beetles killed much of the forest here around 1919, another period of drought in Idaho, Rineholt said.

The Iron Creek area west of Stanley is one of the places already thinned and sprayed with pesticide to limit the spread of the infestation around homes. Kurth and her husband, Roger, have worked closely with Rineholt to protect the home they just built.

She said many residents remain unsettled about the natural change taking place around them.

"I am part of the minority," she said. "I just think it's Mother Nature's way of dealing with lodgepole pines."

The alternatives are either to log and thin or cut firebreaks or to burn large swaths of the forest. Neither is popular with all groups.

"We are asking people how far are you willing to compromise your key values to do treatments on the landscape," Rineholt said.

With fire conditions getting worse every year, the Forest Service is poised to jump on fires quickly, said Joe Harper, SNRA district ranger. Even though huge fires are normal for the ecosystem, the public's aversion to big fires keeps fire suppression the plan for the area.

"We still have the potential for fires in the wilderness," Harper said. "We will analyze each fire to determine if it is truly going to risk leaving the wilderness. But if it's an isolated tree hit by lightning, we still have the option to let it go."

J.R. Robison, a forest specialist for the Idaho Conservation League, would prefer a more aggressive stance on fire by the agency. He'd like to see the Forest Service pro-actively burn large swaths of the forest in the spring or the fall when the chances of it burning out of control are low.

"If you can break up that continuous fuel load in a series of mosaics through burning and in some cases mechanical treatments, you'd be able to ease the ecological transition on our own terms," Robison said.

In addition to reducing the current fire threat, Hayes wants the agency to consider an ongoing active management program. He envisions areas burned to provide a mosaic effect and logging that turns the future forest into more diverse uneven-aged stands of trees.

The current thinning program has been bolstered by a strong timber market. Loggers have been selling trees to log home builders in Ashton and other eastern Idaho communities 200 miles or more away.

That could make a more ambitious thinning program economically viable, Rineholt said.

Hayes, of the Sawtooth Society acknowledged that the Forest Service may not be able to stop the large fires that are natural for the lodgepole pine ecosystem. A dry August with several days of winds can overwhelm all the logging and burning he and others are advocating.

"I don't think anybody wants to be standing on the outskirts of Decker Flats at anything short of that perfect storm and say we thought of taking some action but gave up because we thought it was hopeless," Hayes said. "You have to do what makes sense."

What's happened?
An infestation of mountain pine beetle that began in 1997 and peaked in 2000 has killed up to 70 to 80 percent of the trees in some areas of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Homes, businesses and government developments near Stanley are threatened by an unusually flammable forest filled with dead trees.

What's new?
The Forest Service has thinned the forests around developments to stop or slow down a major fire. It also is spraying some trees with pesticide to protect them from the beetles. It is considering a second phase that includes logging fire breaks in strategic locations near Redfish Lake.

Are these infestations out of the ordinary?
No. Mountain pine beetles are always present. Epidemics like the current one occur because of drought or because the trees are overly mature. Lodgepole pine forests throughout the Rockies go through frequent beetle outbreaks. When the outbreaks are especially bad and drought conditions severe enough, these forests typically burn in giant stand-replacing fires. The fires are a natural part of the lifecycle in which these forests evolved. These large fires occur every 100 to every 300 years.

Can they be stopped?
Foresters say by harvesting the mature to over-mature trees in these forests, they can change them enough to reduce the effects of bug outbreaks. But because the trees are of relatively low value, the costs of such extensive management are limiting and not proposed in this case. Ecologists say these forests are fire-dependent and sustain themselves despite the beetles.

How can I comment?
Contact the Sawtooth National Forest, 2647 Kimberly Rd. E.,Twin Falls, ID 83301 or ranger stations in Stanley and Ketchum.

Rocky Barker
Beetles Eat at Sawtooth Pines in Natural Cycle
The Idaho Statesman, July 21, 2004

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