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Guest Opinion

Blame the Beetles

Growing up in the mid-1960s, my parents blamed everything on The Beatles. According to them, the "punks from Liverpool" caused all the teenagers to go crazy and put the waltz and fox-trot into hibernation.

Today, there's another group of "beatles" giving people fits, but they don't play guitars or sing, and their names are spelled differently. They're the tiny beetles that burrow under the bark of mature trees and munch on the nutrient layers. They can suffocate whole forests and create an immense fire hazard.

They're not a new phenomenon. In fact, they're an important part of the forest life cycle. But now, they're responsible for the smoky haze that blankets Anchorage, Alaska. The smoke comes from forest fires burning on the nearby Kenai Peninsula, southeast of Anchorage.

The Kenai Peninsula may be best known for its world-famous salmon runs, but it is the area's white spruce forests that have captured the spotlight now, underscoring serious problems with our forest management practices.

Bark beetle infestations have turned the Kenai's once rich, green forests into a barren landscape of dead and dying trees. Because these trees are fire hazards, wildfires in Alaska have jumped threefold since 2004-and Alaskans are bracing for another record fire year.

The devastation is not limited to Alaska. The bark beetle's cousin, the mountain pine beetle, ravages most western inland forests. The dead wood fuels conflagrations like the million-acre blaze that blackened Yellowstone National Park in 1988. The smoke from that inferno shot into the stratosphere and circled the earth.

To deal with these threats, President Bush proposed his Healthy Forests Initiative a couple of years ago. It would create firebreaks, salvage commercially valuable burned timber, and replant the forests outside wilderness areas and national parks. The idea was quickly shot down by folks in Congress who believe that any timber harvesting in national forests is taboo.

Given the number of acres scarred by wildfires, Congress should reconsider that policy. Many areas will regenerate naturally, but very slowly. Look at north-central Oregon near Mount Washington. On both sides of State Route 20, which snakes over Santiam Pass, the land remains barren following the 2003 B&B Complex fire that consumed more than 90,000 acres. Bark beetles were partly responsible for that massive blaze, as well.

The question people need to ask themselves is, "Do we want policies that lead to massive wildfires?" Blame the forest fires on global warming if you want, but if that's the case, the tons of carbon spewing into the atmosphere each year from these fires is only adding to the problem.

Wouldn't it be better to plant young, vigorous, oxygen-generating forests to convert the carbon dioxide into oxygen and reduce greenhouse gases? A new forest would certainly help control erosion that pollutes the streams where fish spawn.

Wouldn't it be wiser to log the beetle-killed trees while they have commercial value and put people to work on logging sites and in sawmills? That's what they did in Montana in the 1950s, where the Forest Service created a series of firebreaks just north of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, southwest of Butte, putting loggers to work removing diseased trees and planting healthy new Lodgepole Pine seedlings.

Wouldn't it be better to thin forests to prevent the devastation caused by beetle infestations and forest fires? Properly spaced trees are both healthier and more fire resistant.

Wildfires are a natural part of the forest's life cycle. Some places, like Yellowstone National Park and North Cascades National Park, are maintained in their natural condition. There, nature should be allowed to take its course. But on other public forestlands it makes sense to either beat the beetles or clean up after them, especially where homes and families are involved.

Just ask the nearly 100 families who just lost their homes in the Caribou Hills conflagration on the Kenai Peninsula.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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