How to best manage pine beetle’s legacy of dead trees

By Quinn Lance

The beetles that have infested or killed an estimated 3.1 million acres of trees have recently begun to run out of viable adult trees in which to lay their larvae. Mountain pine beetles prefer mature trees with a diameter of more than 5 inches to ensure the survival of their larvae through the winter months.

While recent data may suggest that the current epidemic could be winding down, the pine beetle’s legacy — a trademark, rust-red landscape — is what is left behind.

The U.S. Forest Service has focused lately on removing dead lodgepole pines that might fall on hikers, campers or power lines. But the large-scale removal of dead trees has yet to happen. It is not economically cost-effective to remove vast sections of dead standing trees trees.

Students in the University of Wyoming’s Environment and Natural Resource capstone class are working this semester to research and write an environmental assessment of how to turn all that dead timber into a renewable energy source.

In one hypothetical scenario, the goal is to provide the University of Wyoming with wood biomass from the Laramie District of the Medicine Bow National Forest, which would be used to operate the university’s heating plant.  The amount of wood biomass needed to operate the plant is approximately 14,600 tons per year. The Medicine Bow National Forest would consider a 10-year contract to provide the wood biomass to UW, which would equate to harvesting approximately 358 acres of dead trees per year for 10 years.

One way to achieve that harvest is through selective thinning, which involves removing the dead trees while leaving behind the healthy ones. Forest managers say the benefits of this approach could mean a forest with more biodiversity. The downside is road construction, fragmentation of wildlife habitat and the likelihood of introducing invasive plants.

Another alternative is clear-cutting to remove the infested trees as well as the living ones. British Columbian loggers are using this technique to manage their forests. Advocates say clear-cutting is a tool that can mimic a natural wildfire. Whether this technique is the best approach won’t be known for years.

A third option is to do nothing — leave the dead trees to biodegrade on their own or to burn naturally if a wildfire occurs. Over the course of this semester, the majority of the graduate students in the class have said that they prefer this option.

The scale of this epidemic has brought together policymakers, loggers and forest managers to consider a multitude of strategies. It may be that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to view the mountain pine beetle epidemic. There is no doubt it is an opportunity to learn more about our forest landscapes and the complexities of nature.

A pluralist approach may offer more benefits than following any single strategy that, in the long run, might not be the healthiest choice for the forests of Wyoming and the West.

Quinn Lance is a student at the University of Wyoming.

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  1. As our nation continues to subsidize ethanol produced from corn with its associated problems of water consumption and use of fertilizer and pesticides which end up in the Gulf of Mexico, it seems tragic that this huge biomass cannot be used to fuel our cars instead. I rarely hear this discussed. Is it because it really cannot be done?

  2. In the Medicine Bow-Rout National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service has very little invested in clearing dead trees from power line rights of way. The majority of that expense is being borne by Carbon Power & Light. Furthermore, the capstone class (that I helped teach in its founding era) must confront the dreadful and prolonged process of getting Forest Service approval before either option 1 or 2 can be put in operation.

  3. Just to clear up a widely-held misunderstanding: in addition to the activity of mountain pine beetles, Wyoming has also recently played host to outbreaks of native spruce bark beetles and Douglas-fir bark beetles. So, in addition to vast expanses of lodgepole and other pine forests, we’ve lost large tracts of Douglas-fir and Engelmann spruce – especially in the Shoshone National Forest along the eastern edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Many stands have already undergone “sanitation/salvage” operations.

  4. Hey Quinn

    I like how your thinking about the problem.

    The key to the future lies in “active management”. A one size does NOT fit all approach.

    BC was largely managed for forestry only values. We ended up with a Province full of mature Pine trees. Guess what bark beetles like?

    Still if the sites aren’t difficult, and the dead trees of harvestable size….. make room for new plantings?

    As a society right now, planting trees may be the most important single thing we can do.