Tracking land policy in the Golden State.

Dog-and-Pony Show: How a Congressman Expects to Solve Bark-Beetle Infestations

Rep. Rob Bishop | Photo: republicanconference/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Because it is the summer, it's time for the Rob Bishop Show. That's Utah Republican Rob Bishop, a headliner of the Sagebrush Rebellion crowd. He chairs the House Resource subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, and annually roams across the western U. S. trying to round up public opinion in favor of one bad idea after another.

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Bishop tried to turn up the heat last June on immigration, which he asserts poses a dire national-security threat to our public lands. Certain that undocumented immigrants have been trashing borderlands parks and refuges, Bishop has pressed hard for the construction of the massive border fence that now cuts through these important wildlands, rips apart vital habitat, and militarizes what was once pristine.

As heavy handed was his attempt late last summer to rub fresh salt in old wounds. With like-minded (read: right-wing) colleagues trailing along with him, Bishop lashed out at Bill Clinton for establishing Escalante/Grand Staircase National Monument in 1996. That's correct: Bishop used taxpayer money to travel to southern Utah to lambaste a former president's use of the Antiquities Act fifteen years earlier; to denounce that very act itself, legislation Congress passed in 1906; and do so in the declared hope of whipping up opposition to speculated (but thoroughly denied) rumors that the Obama administration was about to designated new wilderness protections for public lands in Utah and elsewhere.

His allegations and fulminations failed to catch fire in the summer of 2011. That political failure has not stopped him from mounting up and heading out once again. This Monday, the Bishop wagon train pulled into Montrose, Colorado, just west of Gunnison National Forest. There it held a day-long congressional field hearing.

The session's long-winded title -- "Logs in the Road: Eliminating federal red tape and excessive litigation to create healthy forests, jobs and abundant water and power supplies" -- is of a piece with the blustery testimony given by a hand-picked group of witnesses. As with last year's "testimonies," Bishop prevents spontaneous reactions from those opposed to his arch-conservative viewpoint by stacking the roster with speakers who'll toe his party line.

Those selected to speak this year in Montrose played their part, followed the script to the letter: it is high time to unshackle the Forest Service to get out the cut. It's past due for the chainsaws to rev up and take down some timber. America needs board feet and the jobs it can generate. Etc.

The bark beetle is tiny. | Photo: USFS

Cue up the vice president of the Colorado Timber Industry Association, Nancy Fishering. She bemoaned the massive bark-beetle epidemic that has killed off millions of acres of pine in the Rockies; and shook her head at the legal strictures that forced the agency to spend upwards of 18 months writing an environmental impact statement for a proposed timber sale, and perhaps another three years before any sale itself could work its way through the requisite bureaucratic and legal reviews. Her zinger: "The bugs move faster than 18 months."

A USFS warning poster about the bark beetle | Poster via the USFS Rocky Mountain Bark Beetle webpage
Local Congressman Scott Tipton (R-CO) jumped on Fishering's bandwagon, telling the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel that the Forest Service "needs more flexibility. It's not brain surgery to create healthy forests." A refrain that Bishop then repeated in his prepared remarks: "We know what works. We have to treat the trees and we're flat out not doing it." If only environmental regulations and laws did not exist, neither would the beetle.

Alas for Bishop's unreflective worldview, the story is a lot more complex than he and his cozy cronies admit. That's why the opening lines of the September 2011 report Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) requested from the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region and the Rocky Mountain Research Station are so important:

Bark beetles are a natural part of forest ecosystems throughout the world. However, bark beetles are killing trees in larger numbers, at faster rates, over longer time periods, and over larger areas compared to outbreaks recorded over the past century. Moreover, outbreaks are occurring in multiple forest types.

To account for this new and disturbing reality is difficult, the scientists argue. They take note of the impact that social and political pressures -- new environmental regulations and legal decisions -- have had on previous timber-cutting practices:

During the last part of the 20th century, widespread treatments in lodgepole pine stands that would have created age class diversity, enhanced the vigor of remaining trees, and improved stand resiliency to drought or insect attack--such as timber harvest and thinning--lacked public acceptance. Proposals for such practices were routinely appealed and litigated, constraining the ability of the Forest Service to manage what had become large expanses of even-aged stands susceptible to a bark beetle outbreak.

Yet these scientists' analyses do not stop there, as some politicians would have us do. Instead, the authors of the report remind us of the other central forces at play, including "a changing climate affecting both insect and host"; former forest-management practices that Bishop and his peers now tout as the answer to the bark-beetle infestation, but which account for some of the present-day dilemmas, to wit: "selective timber harvesting and wildfire suppression." And then there is the maturation of the forests generally, "due in part to changing disturbance patterns," as well as a prolonged drought that has dried out the west's traditionally snowpacked mountains -- this new level of aridity is stressing "trees and make them more vulnerable to insect attacks."

Toss in the Forest Service's shrinking budgets and diminished staff, losses that are a result of congressional action (please note: nowhere does Bishop propose increasing the agency's capacity to care for the land under its management). Finally, combine these negative influences with another key economic pressure: the major shift in the domestic demand for and international production of pulp and timber that have had a powerful role in the shuttering of lumber-mill infrastructure in the U. S.

As a forest industry executive told me several years ago in Corvallis, Oregon, his company was responding to market forces that made it significantly cheaper to purchase wood from eastern Europe and southern Africa than it could in western Oregon; and he doubted these conditions would change any time soon.

No amount of political bombast will change this complex equation.

As such, it becomes all-too clear how myopic Rep. Bishop's prescriptions are; and how silly Rep. Tipton sounds when he declares unequivocally that it's "not brain surgery to create healthy forests."

Actually, it is -- figuring out the necessary and differing antidotes to the bark-beetle infestations across a range of forest conditions will require precisely the level of knowledge, dexterity, and skill that surgeons bring to their reparative work. Lacking that insight, we won't have a prayer of regenerating the once pine-draped western slope of the Rockies.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here


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About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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