Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Too Little Too Late

It was reported several weeks back that the beetle blight sweeping through Colorado is slowing somewhat. The bad news behind the "good news" is this: It's slowing because huge swaths of forest are dead and the hungry little buggers are running out of food.

How much of this calamity is "natural," and how much man-made, isn't much discussed (especially by those who might have the fingers pointed in their direction). Having first written about the forest health crisis back in the late 1990s (though the warnings were there as far back as the Yellowstone fires of 1988), I'm of the belief that conditions for the crisis were largely the result of policy choices, and that much of the devastation could have been contained with aggressive and focused federal action.

That action didn't come, in my opinion, because of bureaucratic and political inertia, red tape, "analysis paralysis," obstructionism from the environmental lobby (which won't even tolerate tree-cutting designed to save forests) and the pusillanimous politicians who kow-tow to the extremist element. Maddening stories such as this one show that federal responsiveness has not improved, despite recent rhetorical support for "responding to the crisis."

Reports The Pueblo Chieftain:

"Officials with the Rio Grande National Forest are still waiting to see whether their forest will benefit from $30 million the Forest Service has set aside to fight bark beetle outbreaks statewide.The agency's regional office in Denver recently earmarked $2 million from that pie for spruce beetle outbreaks and other forest health issues in Southern Colorado and the Western Slope.

Janelle Smith, a spokeswoman for the regional office, said there was no timeline for when a decision would be made on how to divide the $2 million, which could be spread across as many as three national forests. Aerial survey results released last month show that spruce beetles have chewed through at least 144,000 acres on the Rio Grande, which surrounds much of the San Luis Valley. But foresters suspect the outbreak may be even larger since the initial stages of infestation are not visible from the air, said Mike Blakeman, a public affairs officer with the Rio Grande."

The beetles have leisurely eaten their way across Colorado, devastating landscapes that are this state's most precious resource and biggest tourist draw. Yet the Forest Service is taking it's sweet time about doling out the meager funds belatedly made available. The Denver Post reports that another $30 million will soon be flowing to the state. But this will be used not to counter the epidemic, or save our remaining forests, but to clean up after the beetles. Senator Mark Udall called this a "huge win" for the state -- which is a little like saying Little Big Horn was a huge win for Custer.

This is more than a disaster: it's a national disgrace. It's Katrina in slow motion, but with a federal response even more unforgivable because it had years, not days or weeks, in which to react. And it's a direct result of the inability (or is it the unwillingness?) of Washington to responsibly manage lands it holds in trust for the rest of us.

So, the next time someone tells you that adding new acreage to the massive federal domain will lead to more "protection," laugh in their face. What's happening in Colorado and elsewhere across the West proves that the surest way to wreck a beautiful landscape is to put your incompetent old Uncle Sam in charge.

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