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San Juan Forest beetle kill receives national attention

Staff Writer

The San Juan National Forest Supervisor’s Office (SJNFSO), along with the Pagosa Ranger District, has submitted its recommendations to the state on areas of the local forest that are most at risk for and/or affected by insects and disease -— specifically mountain pine and spruce beetles.

Now, the Pagosa Ranger District (PRD) must wait to see if funding from the state will trickle down to make major treatment of the forest possible.

The recommendations from the district were submitted to the state in compliance with the recently enacted Agriculture Act of 2014, signed into law Feb. 7. The act, also know as the Farm Bill, amended the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 by adding a definition for “declining forest health.”

As outlined in the new legislation, the term “declining forest health” will now be used to describe forests that are experiencing “substantially increased tree mortality due to insect or disease infestation; or dieback due to infestation or defoliation by insects or disease.”

Applying the new definition means that a significant portion of Colorado’s beetle-infested forests are now receiving national attention.

In addition to classifying forests affected by insects and disease, the legislation also mandates that within 60 days of the enactment, “the Secretary shall, if requested by the Governor of the State, designate at least one landscape-scale area in at least one national forest as part of an insect and disease treatment program in each State that is experiencing an insect or disease epidemic.”

The act goes on to state that after the 60-day period, the state may designate additional areas to be addressed as needed.

Initial requests for designations were due from the states to the USDA by April 8. A map of the first round of forests identified as needing attention within Colorado can be seen at www.fs.fed.us/farmbill/areadesignations.shtml#table.

The forests identified by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper as having the most massive infestations of beetles were Arapaho, Grand Mesa, Rio Grande, Roosevelt, Routt, San Juan and Pike. Several additional forests were identified as affected areas, though less severely.

The designations are meant to expedite the process that forest service personnel have to go through before being able to treat affected lands. However, as the new regulations are still in a state of infancy, the implications on the local level are still unclear. And while several forests within Colorado have been identified as needing treatment, it remains to be seen whether or not funding will be made available for such projects.

Each forest district within the state was asked to identify and recommend to the governor two areas in its region that need treatment.

According to Steven Hartvigsen, supervisory forester with PRD, the district, in collaboration with the SJNFSO and other entities, identified the two most critical regions as the forests surrounding Wolf Creek Ski Area and areas north of town surrounding the Four Mile diversion and South Fork diversion water sheds.

While forests surrounding the ski area are technically under Rio Grande National Forest jurisdiction (with the main office in Alamosa), Hartvigsen informed that the Alamosa office had already designated two other areas within its district needing attention.

Kent Grant, who is in charge of the SJNFSO in Durango, felt that, given the strong economic impact the ski area has on the region, priority focus needed to be given to maintaining the health of Wolf Creek’s forests.

The two water diversions identified by the assessment team are both under Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District management. They are both key diversions that feed into town, providing the majority of Pagosa area residents with water. Another important water diversion south of town, though not on federal land, and the Dutton water shed area are also being assessed for future treatment consideration.

The San Juan Forest representatives submitted their target project recommendations to the state in March and are now waiting to see what action, if any, the state will take.

Now that the district has made its recommendations, it does not know whether or not the state will provide any assistance or funding. At this point, it appears as though Colorado districts will be competing against each other for any funding the state might provide. PRD suspects Front Range projects will be held in higher priority than southwest projects, due to population.

Hartvigsen told The SUN that he and the district appreciate the efforts of Congress to bring the issue of insect infestation and disease to the forefront. However, the supervisory forester said that the lack of specificity, when it comes to understanding how projects will be funded, is challenging.

“It hasn’t been as well outlined as it could have been,” Hartvigsen stated.

When asked what the new legislation will mean for the Pagosa area specifically, Hartvigsen sighed, saying, “At this point, I really don’t know.”

Hartvigsen was quick to point out, though, that regardless of what happens with state funding, the district is not sitting idly by.

The San Juan Forest Health Partnership, comprising the ranger district, J.R. Ford and several other representatives, is actively assessing forest health issues and risks, thinning trees, putting together long-term projects and doing all it can to be proactive.

Though several projects are on the docket for this summer, when it comes to the growing spruce beetle epidemic, there is little the district can do to stop it.

“The outbreak is just so big,” Hartvigsen said.

However, the district has not given up. Instead of trying to tackle stands of infested trees, the district is focusing on thinning and maintaining the health of beetle-free stands, hoping to slow the spread of the insects.

PRD is also actively working with insect specialists to better understand how to defend the forest against invasive species outbreaks. It also greatly values data gathered through aerial detection flights, which occur each summer, when compiling long-term forest health plans.

Water risk assessment is another top priority for the district this year. Thurman Wilson, retired San Juan assistant center manager and district ranger, is in the process of facilitating and conducting a water risk assessment for PRD, which will likely be completed in the next two months.

Wilson’s preliminary findings, along with other risk assessment findings by the district, will likely be presented this summer to county commissioners and emergency planners to garner thoughts and direction on moving forward.

Until the details with the 2014 agriculture act are worked out, the district will continue to do all it can to keep the San Juan National Forest healthy, Hartvigsen concluded.

For more information about bark beetles and their wide impact, check out www.beyondbarkbeetles.org.

shanti.johnson@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on June 12, 2014.