The U.S. Forest Service is getting an additional $14 million to fight a bark beetle outbreak in Idaho that has left mountainsides covered with dying, red-needled trees.
The tiny beetles have chewed their way through nearly 1.3 million acres in the state, denuding trees from Lolo Pass to Lookout Pass along the Idaho-Montana border. At Bald Mountain in Sun Valley, the sheer volume of beetle-killed trees is creating a wildfire danger for the town of Ketchum. Beetle attacks are also killing off rare whitebark pines, whose fat-laden seeds provide high calorie snacks for grizzly bears.
During a three-day backpacking trip in the Seven Devils Mountains near Hells Canyon, Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick said he couldn’t find a single whitebark pine with green needles. “Every tree was riddled with bark beetles,” said Minnick, D-Idaho.
The funding was announced Thursday by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service. Last month, the Department of Agriculture pledged $40 million to fight beetle outbreaks in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota, which are experiencing similar problems.
The $14 million for Idaho will be used to thin crowded trees, restore watershed health and reduce wildfire danger near communities. About $5 million in new funds will flow into the Idaho Panhandle, Nez Perce and Clearwater national forests. The rest of the money will be spent in Southern Idaho.
The money will be available for projects beginning this summer, though some projects may take several years to complete, said Andy Brunelle, a Forest Service spokesman in Boise.
Bark beetles are native to Rocky Mountain forests, with distinct beetle species preying on different tree types. The beetles bore under the tree bark to lay their eggs, eventually killing the trees by restricting their ability to draw water.
In recent years, beetle outbreaks have increased in intensity and acreage. Milder winters mean that more of the pests survive the cold months, said Minnick, a former timber industry executive who lobbied for the funding, along with U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. More trees are also under stress, which increases mortality rates from beetle attacks.
“Years of fire suppression and changes in logging practice have led to overstocked, unhealthy forests,” said Serena Carlson, a spokeswoman for Intermountain Forest Association in Coeur d’Alene, an industry group. “You combine with a couple of drought years, and you end up with an entire forest of stressed trees susceptible to beetle kill.”
Thinning forests will reduce the trees’ competition for water, Minnick said. He’s anticipating that the $14 million will create new jobs in rural communities, but the Forest Service’s Brunelle said it’s too soon to make predictions.
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