The pine beetle epidemic chewing through forests across the West not only threatens homes, humans and wildlife, it could endanger roads, power lines and other infrastructure as millions of acres of trees fall to the ground or catch fire.
Colorado and Wyoming alone have more than 3 million acres of dead or dying forests, including nearly 2 million acres of dead lodgepole pine forest in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado.
"If you can imagine almost 2 million acres of flat trees — it would be like a wind event or a hurricane came through and just laid the forest flat," Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Rick Cables told Wyoming lawmakers last week. "And it only takes one tree to close a trail or a road."
Lodgepole pines typically fall down seven to 15 years after they die, he said.
Federal and state officials at the meeting said bark beetles have become a leading factor in forest management since the epidemic was triggered by an extended drought in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In Wyoming, the pine beetle infestation grew by more than 400,000 acres last year to a total of 1.2 million acres.
"Right now (the epidemic) is so big there's really nothing you can do to stop it," said Bill Crapser, Wyoming state forester. "So really what we have to focus on now is public safety ... and what we want the future forest to look like and start to position ourselves to move to that."
'Hellacious fire' feared
Forest managers agreed that the prospect of a wildfire in beetle-ravaged forest is frightening. They said they've been working to try to reduce fuels in the forests, create fuel breaks within forests, clear defensible space around structures and increase firefighter training.
"I'm scared it's going to be the most hellacious fire we've ever seen," said Rep. Seth Carson, D-Laramie. "It just seems like there'd be no way to control it, just because of the scale."
Cables said dead trees are particularly hazardous for fire when the needles are red. The risk decreases when the needles fall off because the needles aren't in place to carry a wind-driven fire, he said. But the hazard could be greatest once the trees fall down.
"That is the time, in my mind, that's going to be the very most difficult, because we are going to have real serious questions about putting crews in the middle of some of that country because they won't be able to get out," Cables said.
Cables said he has requested more than $200 million in emergency funding from the Forest Service for the next three years to address the problem. As part of the project, the Medicine Bow National Forest in southeastern Wyoming is working on an environmental analysis of plans to protect infrastructure from falling trees, he said.
"It's going to be cheaper now than it will be later, because once the trees fall over it's going to be horribly expensive to try to get in and do this work," he said.
Forest managers said they see logging and forest fires as key tools for managing Wyoming's existing forests and helping grow healthier forests when new trees sprout in areas devastated by beetles.
Crapser said a viable sawmill industry is critical because the mills create a market for the trees removed from forests, including those killed by beetles. The Wyoming sawmill industry has been struggling in recent years.