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Our dying forests: Beetles gnaw through Utah, West
Warming winters have allowed waves of beetles to gnaw their way through millions of acres of forests in Utah and across the West.

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Utah has relied on federal money to reduce fire risks where residents have built homes in the thick trees near national forests. Four years ago the state's largest fire, a lightning strike in cheat grass and pinyon-juniper forests, scorched 567 square miles of southwestern Utah and claimed two lives.

Since then, the government has undertaken several projects to thin pinyon pines and junipers around Interstate 15, while the state has focused on forested housing enclaves.

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In many subdivisions, fire crews find residents eager to lend a hand. At Moose Hollow, a gated mountainside community near Park City, Jim McHugh was making plans for his home a few years ago when a friend, a retired fire chief, warned him of the wildfire prospects.

"This was so thick that you couldn't walk in here," McHugh said, strolling through a breezy canyon of maple and fir below his home. He and his neighbors joined the state in creating a fire-risk-reduction plan. He has gotten most of his exercise hiking with a chain saw or weed trimmer since.

Across the canyon is a patch of scrawny maple stems still so thick he's sure no deer could walk through. Below his home, though, he pointed out a depression in the grass where a cow moose frequently naps. The plan has worked.

"I'd rather do this," McHugh said, "than take [federal emergency] money that's thrown around because people build in the wrong place or don't do any prevention."

From 2004 to 2010, federal officials awarded Utah about $1.5 million to coordinate such thinning projects. The typical grant is $300,000, enough to spread among a few subdivisions across one or two counties.

This year, increasing national competition kept the state from winning any money.


Editor's Note: This story originally ran in The Salt Lake Tribune on September 25, 2011.

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Rules vs. resources • Where beetles are concerned, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, doubts budget constraints are the real issue. As chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, he conducted a July field hearing in South Dakota, where, he said, "the Black Hills are turning red."

There, he heard that Forest Service employees wanted to quickly approve timber sales to slow the beetles' advance but had to take up to two years to navigate environmental rules.

By that time, he said, the trees in question were dead and Black Hills tourism harmed.

"There's a basic disconnect," Bishop said, "between those on the ground who know what to do and their supervisors who are dragging their feet and making it impossible to do anything."

It's unclear, though, that faster sales to loggers would solve the problem regionwide. For one thing, the Intermountain West's logging and milling industry is a seedling of its former self. For another, skeptics don't think logging alone will curb beetles.

At this summer's Western Governors' Association meeting, Democratic Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer reminded his colleagues that intense logging ahead of mountain pine beetles in British Columbia - enough to draw American howls over Canada dumping cheap lumber with little regard for the environment - didn't stop that province from becoming the outbreak's international epicenter.

"We are in a historic time of pine beetles killing pine trees," he concluded.

Given that the U.S. government will have to "do more with less," Sherman said, the administration is backing partnerships with states, local governments and businesses to achieve mutual goals.

To protect millions of people's tap water, for instance, Sherman foresees a long list of cost-sharing deals with water utilities. More than a fifth of all Americans, including Salt Lakers, get their water from national forests.

Salt Lake City's water starts as snowmelt in the Cottonwood canyons, where Brighton and other resorts are bracing against beetle kill. If those high forests were to be obliterated by bugs or fire, even temporarily, the city would face a hefty bill for upgrading its treatment plants for silty water. It also could require bigger holding tanks to capture a faster gush of runoff.

That's why the Forest Service is talking to Salt Lake City about a partnership to protect the trees, Sherman said. The service already has joined with Denver to replant forests that burned around that city's watershed.

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