Guest Commentary: Beetle-damaged forests release record levels of carbon
~August 17th, 2023
Growing up in the sixties, our parents blamed everything on “The Beatles.” According to them, they were “the punks” from Liverpool who caused all the teenagers to go crazy.
Lately, there is another group of “Beatles” giving people fits, only their names are spelled differently. These “beetles” are tiny insects that burrow under the bark of mature conifers and munch on the nutrient layers. In time, they suffocate whole forests and create immense debris fields.
In fact, those tiny bugs provide much of the dead wood fueling today’s conflagrations. According to University of British Columbia researchers, the mountain pine beetle damaged 45 million acres of pine forests across western Canada and the northwest United States in the last 40 years.
Jeffrey Hicke, a University of Idaho scientist, calculated by the time the enormity of beetle outbreak came to the forefront in 2012, the creepy-crawler outbreaks affected 30 million acres and killed 6 billion trees.
Throughout North America, forests are experiencing some of the worst wildfires in recent history. Correspondingly, insect and disease epidemics starting 40 years ago were the worst ever. Beetle-killed trees only waited for the right conditions to ignite.
Soon after President George W. Bush took office, he proposed a healthy forest initiative. It was a way to clean up the woods and fight beetle infestations. Salvage logging would provide jobs and tax revenue for hard-hit rural communities where sawmills were shuttered by lack of timber from state and federal forests. That money would pay for tree thinning and seedling planting.
However, Bush’s plan succumbed to an avalanche of criticism from those opposed to logging and thinning calling it a “sweetheart” deal for the timber industry. It was an illogical argument that froze fire-fuel removal and heightened the dangers of wildfires. It spawned policies such as “let it burn.”
Bark beetles ravaged Yellowstone National Park, and the National Park Service figured out its ill-fated “let it burn” policy had backfired. The fires of 1988 charred 1.4 million acres in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem including a third of Yellowstone National Park.
At the peak of Yellowstone firefighting, 9,500 military and civilian firefighters were engaged, using dozens of helicopters, retardant bombers, and more than 100 firetrucks. Only the winter snow doused the flames. Suppression costs were the highest ever—$120 million.
Fast-forward to 2023, by the end of June, wildfires raging across Canada released more planet-warming carbon dioxide in the first six months of 2023 than in any full year on record.
So far this season, 27.1 million acres have burned across Canada, and it is unlikely the fires will be fully extinguished until fall or winter, when colder weather and precipitation arrives. The burned area is larger than the state of Kentucky.
The good news is, unlike the resistance Bush encountered 20 years ago, President Biden’s program to help communities to create firebreaks passed Congress with bipartisan support. In our state, Klickitat County received $5.5 million to create strategic firebreaks.
Unfortunately, the beetles were allowed to flourish. However, the heavy damage is already done.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and retired president of the Association of Washington Business. He now lives in Vancouver, Washinton, and can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.