A homeowner's beetle battle

Loggers recently cut down many trees behind the house, leaving a meadowy hill in their wake. Photo: Jamie Osborne

The New York Times has an article about a couple who 12 years ago built a house on 11 acres of land outside Helena, Montana. Then beginning 4 years ago, the bark beetles started killing the trees. Now, after hauling away the dead ones, they are living in a meadow and for the first time can see their neighbors.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

…When we bought the land, the stands of timber were so dense and unruly you couldn’t walk through parts of the property. I bought my first chainsaw, an orange beauty. I spent a lot of time thinning small trees, sawing up bigger ones for firewood, splitting and stacking the wood, and using it all to heat our house. We rarely used the propane furnace. Our masonry wood stove from Finland, a Tulikivi, has a mass of gray soapstone around the fire box that stores the warmth and radiates heat into the house for 24 hours, even in the coldest days of December.

And we were “fireproofing” our property, thinning trees around the house should a wildfire break out.

Four years ago, the beetles came. First a couple of our oldest pine trees turned red. Alarmed, we quickly cut them down and covered them with black plastic. It’s stomach-churning when the tree reaper comes to claim your forest. One day ivory-colored plugs that look like candle wax are plastered on the trunk, a sign the tree is pumping out resin to try to halt a drilling bug. Sometimes a tree wins by entombing a beetle; far more often the trees lose to the mob assault.

Then things went exponential. One dead tree turned to five and the next year five turned to 30, dying far faster than I could cut them down. Now the mortality count is in the hundreds, more than 95 percent of our forest, and many more in the national forest around us.

Last week we threw in the towel. A logging crew cut down all but a few of our trees, taking away our forest and leaving us a meadow. The trees, too damaged to be turned into lumber, were hauled off to a pulp plant, where they will be ground into an oatmeal-like slurry and turned into cardboard boxes. I won’t make money; in fact it will cost me some $700 an acre to get rid of them. And good riddance — the sooner they’re gone the better. Dead trees are a fire waiting to happen….

In a related story, Senator John Thune, R-SD, proposes to fight the beetle problem with more logging, in addition to other methods. From the Rapid City Journal:

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., outlined a comprehensive plan Thursday designed to address the growing pine beetle infestation in Black Hills National Forest and surrounding areas.

Thune’s plan centers on forest management practices, creating a market for woody biomass material removed from the forest and reforming the U.S. Forest Service’s mechanism for funding forest management and fire response activities, according to a news release from the senator.

“The pine beetle infestation is destroying acres of beautiful forest land at an alarming rate while raising the danger of wildfires to very high levels,” Thune, who is a member of the Senate Ag committe which oversees national forests, said in the release. “My plan employs effective techniques that will preserve the health of our forest with an emphasis on fire prevention while at the same time expanding the region’s potential for renewable energy development.”

Thune’s pine beetle plan includes provisions such as:

  • Strong timber harvest targets over the next five years.
  • Expansion of the Health Forest Restoration Act expedited environmental review process.
  • Streamlined Forest Stewardship Contracts.
  • Implementation and extension of the Biomass Crop Assistance Program.
  • Expansion of the renewable biomass definition to include forest waste.
  • Reformed Forest Service funding for forest management and fire suppression activities.