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.