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Originally published Monday, November 23, 2009 at 4:16 PM

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Sen. Udall sponsors bill to attack pine beetles

The insect infestation that has killed millions of pine trees is one of the West's "biggest natural disasters," says U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, sponsor of a bill to give forest managers more ways to respond to the outbreak.

Associated Press Writer

DENVER —

The insect infestation that has killed millions of pine trees is one of the West's "biggest natural disasters," says U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, sponsor of a bill to give forest managers more ways to respond to the outbreak.

The Colorado Democrat said Monday that the bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, would allow the U.S. Forest Service to identify high-priority areas and expedite analysis of proposed treatments. The bill would expand and make permanent programs allowing the Forest Service to contract with state foresters and treat trees that aren't of high commercial value.

"This is one of the biggest natural disasters we face in the West," Udall said.

More than 2.5 million acres of pine trees in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming have been killed by tiny beetles that burrow under the bark and lay their eggs, turning the green needles to the color of rust as they feed on the tree and restrict its ability to draw water.

Other Western states with beetle infestations are Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and eastern Washington. Forests in western South Dakota are also affected.

Federal officials say the stands of dead trees could fuel catastrophic wildfires. They say falling trees could topple hundreds of miles of power lines or injure people along the thousands of miles of roads and trails.

"We face threats to our lives and livelihoods," Udall said.

Research, however, shows that huge stands of trees killed by beetles don't increase the chance of wildfires, said Tom Veblen, a University of Colorado geography professor who studies forest ecology. He said lodgepole pines, the trees attacked by the mountain pine beetles, are fire-prone anyway and that climate - hot, dry weather - is the driver behind forest fires.

"When you have conditions suitable for fires," Veblen said, "it doesn't matter to a great extent whether the trees are alive or dead."

Money to treat beetle-killed trees should be spent in the most strategic areas, including in forests around homes and next to communities, Veblen said.

Those areas are targeted by forest managers, said Rick Cables, head of the regional Forest Service office in Denver. The Forest Service is also concerned about threats to areas containing water sources, Cables said.

The 2002 Hayman fire burned about 215 square miles in the foothills west of Denver, causing erosion that threatened a reservoir that is Denver's main water source.

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Cables said federal officials haven't taken a position on Udall's bill but believe it is crucial to respond quickly to the beetle infestation.

A national management team helping the Forest Service will concentrate on the heaviest-hit forests in Wyoming and Colorado. The regional Forest Service office has proposed spending an additional $49 million to battle the beetles.

Cables said he expects a decision on funding over the next month.

"In my judgment, the situation has gotten to the point where we have simply got to accelerate the work," Cables said.

Udall's bill, introduced last week, doesn't provide additional funding, but provides additional tools to the Forest Service to battle the pine beetles.

Among the tools would be the ability to designate "insect emergency areas" where the Forest Service could set priorities and expedite analysis of treatments. The bill would expand a program in Colorado and Utah that allows the Forest Service to contract with state foresters to reduce the threat of wildfire around homes and private property where landowners have done work.

The proposal would authorize the Forest Service to offer incentives through the federal farm bill and other laws to convert beetle-killed trees into biofuels.

The bugs have infested forests in some of the region's most scenic areas, including Colorado mountain resorts and Rocky Mountain National Park.

While bark beetle infestations are considered part of natural cycles, experts say drought and warmer temperatures are worsening the current outbreak. The region hasn't had prolonged freezing temperatures that would help kill the bugs, and drought has weakened the trees.

Cables testified before a U.S. House panel in June that water supplies for 33 million people in the West could be endangered if millions of acres of beetle-devastated trees catch fire. The Colorado River headwaters are in some of the most ravaged areas.

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