Lawmakers playing 'defense' in pine beetle epidemic

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— Western Colorado lawmakers admit there is little the state legislature can do about Colorado's catastrophic loss of lodgepole pine forests from an epidemic of the mountain pine beetle.

"At this point in time, it's all defense," said Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park. "It's too late for an offensive game to try and stop it."

Instead, lawmakers are talking about continuing a grant program to help communities prevent wildland fires and protect critical watersheds; tax credits to incentivize removal and use of beetle-killed lumber; and promoting federal-state partnerships that would lead to better management of forests.

"It's hard to go in today to fix the problem that's been 100 years developing," Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, said. "We haven't had pro-active forest management. The forests have become too thick, and there's less moisture in the trees."

State and federal foresters reported earlier this week that the beetles are moving east from the Western Slope to the Front Range, with an additional 500,000 acres of high-elevation forests infested last year. More than 1.5 million acres have been impacted since the outbreak began in 1996.

The pine-beetle invasion and mitigating the damage was a major topic Wednesday for the House Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources.

Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, attended to make sure his old committee didn't kill a 5-year pilot program he started last year with $1 million worth of grants to help with wildland-urban interface projects.

Gibbs, who was appointed to a Senate vacancy late last year, and his replacement in the House, Rep. Christine Scanlon, D-Dillion, said they are seeking another $1 million this year from severance tax revenue to continue the program.

"The state is at a really critical point," said Gibbs, who noted much of the devastation is in mountain communities with tourism-based economies. "We need to work on protecting the communities where a catastrophic wildland fire would have enormous economic impact, not to mention a threat to water quality.

Gibbs' district is home to Dillon Reservoir, which stores 240,000 acre feet of water for Front Range consumers.

Denver Water has spent at least $5 million rehabilitating the area around Cheesman Reservoir after the 2002 Hayman Fire in the Pike-San Isabel National Forest southwest of Denver.

"Whether from climate change, management challenges or the drought cycles we've had, we are beyond the point of saying why it is occurring," Gibbs said. "It's occurring, and we need to do something about it. The more resources we can bring to the problem, the better. We are working to make sure every community has a community wildfire protection plan in place."

State Forester Jeff Jahnke said the first $1 million in grants - culled from $3 million worth of requests - went to 12 projects, including nine that involved the Colorado Youth Corps. He said the state money was used to leverage another $1 million in cash from the local communities.

More help apparently is coming from the federal government.

U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard announced this week that Colorado will receive $12 million in emergency funding to address the bark beetle epidemic, with $8 million going to mitigation projects on federal land and the other $4 million for grants to reduce hazardous fuels on state or private land.

"This funding could not have come at a better time," Allard said. "These dollars will allow the federal government, state government and private landowners to work collaboratively to mitigate conditions to prevent a disaster."

Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, said the federal government should be paying for mitigation because the poor management of the U.S. forests "is why we have this problem in the first place."

Taylor also is leery of using severance tax revenue on forest health issues.

"The severance tax fund is not a bottomless pit," he said. "If it's done at the expense of impacted areas, then I have a problem with it."

White said he is thankful for the federal help, but is not confident there will be any change in management policy.

"The engagement by Congress helps a lot because we don't have any control for the federal forests," White said. "That kind of cooperation will allow for better interplay between state and federal agencies, but there is a well-defined and rigid process for forest management. As cooperative as they want to be, their hands are sometimes tied by red tape and bureaucracy."

Eastern Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, said he expects to see bills introduced this year that would use tax policy to help Colorado recover from damage. One would create a tax incentive for building companies who use lumber killed by pine beetle. Another would remove the sales tax from any products made from beetle-kill wood.

"We want to incentivize people to use these products so we have a market for them," Gardner said.

Nancy Fishering of the Montrose-based Colorado Timber Industry Association said the beetle infestation is adding to the woes of an industry already suffering from a recession in the housing industry.

"This is the worst market in 20 or 30 years with prices at 1980 levels," Fishering said. "Tax credits would help pull more demand for products from Colorado."

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