Baucus Beetle Amendment To Farm Bill Bad For Forest Ecosystems

Despite the ecological reality that beetle-kill is part of healthy functioning forest ecosystem, Montana Senator Max Baucus successfully added an amendment to the Farm Bill that would provide additional funds to log beetle killed trees as well as “stream line” the process of getting out timber sales. Baucus stated this would be “good news” to the timber industry. Here’s a link to one news report on the Baucus amendment.

I don’t blame the Senator for his lack of ecological knowledge. And I am sure he had the best intentions, however, his amendment is “bad news” for our forests.

Among the incorrect assertions made by Baucus is the idea that dead beetle-killed trees increases fire risk. Except for the “red needle” stage, there is no conclusive evidence that dead trees contributes to any greater fire risk. Indeed, there is some research that suggests that dead trees are less prone to fire, especially once the needles and small branches are worn off over time.

Green trees, by contrast, have flammable resins that under conditions of drought and high winds can sustain high intensity blazes.

Baucus’s press release also furthered the misconception that beetle kill leads to a “loss” of the forest. In fact, beetle related mortality is seldom more than 50% of the trees in any forest. The naturally thinned forests that beetles create leads to increased growth rates among the remaining trees.

Dead trees not a wasted resource as implied by timber industry propaganda. Rather they are important for many wildlife species. Up to 45% of all bird species depend on dead trees for some part of their survival including feeding, roosting, and nesting. Dead trees that fall into streams contribute to as much as 50% of the fish habitat in aquatic ecosystems. Dead trees in streams also provide bank stability reducing water velocity and thus erosion.

In addition, dead trees are an important biological legacy to the future forest. The physical presence of dead trees is critical to future forest growth. Dead trees stacked on the ground capture water and concentrate it on the ends of logs where it can enhance seedling growth. The snags left by beetles provides some shade for tree saplings, and acts like a snow fence to trap snow in the winter adding to the water infiltration of the forest soil. The slowly decomposing boles are an important source of nutrients to the future forest.

Finally logging is not a benign activity. The disturbance that accompanies logging can enhance the spread of weeds. Logging roads are a major source of sedimentation in our streams and one of the major factors in the decline of many native fish populations. Logging activities can displace or disturb sensitive species from grizzlies to elk. Logging removes biological legacy, in effect, starving the forest.

While Senator Baucus’ amendment may have had the best intension, it’s bad news for taxpayers who will pay for the destruction of our forests, not to mention the long-term degradation of our forest ecosystems.



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  1. Dan Avatar

    Hey George, what is your house built out of?

    1. Rita K. Sharpe Avatar
      Rita K. Sharpe

      Are you asking that just to pick a fight with him or any one else?

  2. CodyCoyote Avatar

    When I drive west of Cody WY at the 25 mile marker I enter the Shoshone National Forest , which has a major pine beetle infestation. I’ve watched pine beetles all across my Forest since I was a kid, but never as a full epidemic as now. What was measured in the 1950’s as a few dozen acres of beetle scourge is now reckoned in hundreds of thousands of red, dead, or denuded pines…pine, fir, and spruce. The Shoshone forest trees are the verdancy that carpet the rugged Absaroka Range.
    Even though the Shoshone pine beetle infestation is in the middle of the range of these things… more than a localized outbreak but w-a-a-a-y less inflicted than other forests such as the Medicine Bow-Routt or the unbelievable amount of beetles in British Columbia, it’s still pretty pandemic.

    Yet just on this one national forest alone there is not enough heavy equipment , manpower , or sawmills to even begin to log our way to recovery and make use of the wood. All the D9 cats and log claws int eh Lower 48 would soon get lost in the Shoshone, even if they could negotiate the steep rock slopes and convoluted ridges cut by a thousand drainages. Never mind that most of the beetle kill is in Wilderness. The terrain will defeat anything Mechanized Man can do. The only remedy at this point is Fire. And of course, Time. It takes a very long time to decay and renew a forest . Just to get back a cuttable tree for a sawmill from the Shoshone takes 125 years.

    Like Wuerthner says, Baucus means well but is misguided to the point of ignorance. We cannot log our way to recover from pine beetles, whether by salvage sales or preemptive cuts or any manner of silvaculture. All you can really do is ” prune the verge” around cabins and lodges . To presume logging will remedy pine beetles is a mighty urine-soaked poor excuse to give our few remaining sawmills a subsidized windfall. It’s a political panderment to an percieved ecological disaster. It’s not a disaster. It’s natural ; just an order of magnitude higher than previous human -measured norm. We humans’ lifespans are but a few heartbeats in the long timescale of forest and mountains and the long gamut of ecological process. We are Mayflies.

    By the way , DAN, I find your comment above to be acerbic and off point.

    1. Barb Rupers Avatar
      Barb Rupers

      Well said, CodyCoyote!

    2. Dan Avatar

      Your underestimating the capabilities of man. I worked in the woods for 6 years, felling trees, running equipment etc. We could easily log anything in the lower 48. Now is it profitable or worth it from a site index and wood quality standpoint as you bring up with a 125 year old tree being of saw log quality? That’s another question all together…Wind swept ridges produce shake that kills log quality, lodgepole pine makes good studs but that’s about it and as Ralph points out the over-supply makes stud grade wood not very valuable. Many factors go into wood science and the timber industry.
      I believe wood is our best building material however, I do not believe every tree needs to be a log…My first comment was only meant to remind people that wood is a necessity of our daily lives. Trying to turn the public against the wood industry is irresponsible and would require more energy production and the use of more non-renewable materials.

  3. mikepost Avatar

    Here is a very interesting take on the beetle issue.

    Its not just bad past fire management practices but also climate change that is influencing this pandemic.

    Re Dan’s comment: I think it adds a bit of perspective. We are all enablers of the lumber industry thru our use of their products. Who among us spent the extra money to have their home built with steel studs instead of fir?

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Logging hasn’t had the slightest effect in stopping this beetle pandemic. I’m not sure Wuerthner sees it as a pandemic, so inasmuch as he doesn’t I disagree with part of his essay.

      In British Columbia where hardly anything is allowed to deter logging, they pulled out all the stops, making clearcuts many miles across. Even this had no effect stopping the beetle (except in the areas that no longer have trees, of course).

      There is so much dead wood available today due to the depressed condition of the economy and vast oversupply, that I think Dan’s comments are beside the point.

      No matter what we do, these trees are going to keep dying and many of these forests will then burn, although I should write an essay about some of myths about dead pine and forest fires.

      Given the drought that now covers all of the West except western Montana and northern Idaho, this summer is going to be exceptional for forest fires, and a huge load of carbon dioxide is going to belch into the atmosphere.

    2. Dan Avatar

      Why is a steel stud more expensive than a fir stud??? I’ll tell you, because the energy requirements to produce that steel studs are far far greater than the energy requirements to produce the fir stud. In the end its a trade off – Do you want more coal burning plants, nuke plants, hydro dams or do want to choose a building material that is far less energy intensive and renewable?

      1. CodyCoyote Avatar

        I like wood. I like it a lot more when it comes from the soft pine of the southern Appalachians where a cuttable tree grows back in 35 years, vs. hard inferior pine from high altitude semi-arid Wyoming that takes 125 years to grow a 8-10 inch tree if you are lucky. Commodity logging, like so many other commodity resources extracted here, have a dismal economic model that only survives with a great deal of financial support . Even then the timber sales fail to make break even on administrative costs. On my side of the Continental Divide , logging is a dubious proposition at best . Everything is stacked against it.

        Nearly all the sawmills in NW Wyoming have closed in the past 15 years. The national forest logs that are being sold and cut are being trucked 450 miles to the Bitteroot mills above Missoula, who must be really desperate because they continually outbid the local mills who only had to truck the loads 30 miles. And those are the beetle kill salvage sales from around the riverbottom where only cabins and lodges and powerlines are thinned.
        Logging and forest products are history where I live.

        And I STRONGLY disagree with you that we have enough machines and men to grapple with the beetle kill. ” Easily log anything in the lower 48 ” ?—dream on. or go visit British Columbia for a reality check. ( Google Earth will take you there in a minute. Look up the Columbia River valley north of Revelstoke past Mica Dam along the shores of huge Kinbasket Lake to see old and new clearcuts and oceans of red beetlekill trees. )

        1. Dan Avatar

          “I like it a lot more when it comes from the soft pine of the southern Appalachians where a cuttable tree grows back in 35 years, vs. hard inferior pine from high altitude semi-arid Wyoming”
          I would like to know the names of these pines? Inferior how so? Bending – Tension? Compression? Shear? Like it for what purpose? Studs? Columns? etc?? I think you had better take a closer look at the Southern pine industry – the vast majority of what they produce is treated wood. Their wood has very wide growth rings (as you mentioned sort of) and the pore structure of southern pine readily accepts treatment hence the majority of it is treated. Point is, the southern pine industry produces a completely different product than the Pacific Northwest.

          “a great deal of financial support”
          In what form?

          We might not want to log many stands of beetle kill from a profitability standpoint but we could if it paid…

  4. bill Avatar

    I think it would be wise to start logging our forest’s. God made pine beetles to kill off mature tree’s in the absence of man. Man is not absent. We will (if we pay attention) do a better job managing our forest’s then if the forest was left alone to manage itself. Fires and beetles kill off old growth making room for new growth. That’s great, but because so many of our fellow american’s live in and around our National Forest’s. Fires are not a good option, especially when they have become overgrown. Why have they become overgrown because we have suppressed fires and logging for up to 100 years now. There’s really only one good option, that’s logging. When fires burn overgrown forest’s (devoid of management for up to 100 years) they burn very hot and sterilize the soil for a long time. That is not good for new growth. Fires are a great tool when they are used years after logging has taken place. Remember we live in a landscape that is not devoid of humans!

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      I kind of think this is nearly a moot question (whether to log). The beetle pandemic is so great that logging has no effect on its spread. In British Columbia where they really log hard, they have made many giant clearcuts to try to get ahead of the beetle. It hasn’t worked anywhere. The only management that works is the use of pheromones to trick the bark beetle moths into thinking a healthy tree is (falsely) fully occupied by existing beetles. This works, but the expense so far, greatly exceeds the value of what they are trying to protect.

      I think this nearly continental pine bark beetle outbreak has nearly run its course. I mean there are not that many uninfested stands of lodgepole pines left. Once the pines are dead, they do have some residual value for bulk operations like chips or power generation (burning them for fuel), but a profit is doubtful and cleaning up the brush and small trees that have resulted from too much fire suppression, or whatever the cause, only makes the economics worse.

      Sorry to be pessimistic, but in my opinion the only things that will stop the pandemic is the reoccurrance of deep cold winter weather for a year or two, a sudden technological development or the exhaustion of the pine forests — almost entirely dead.

      I do think if you look at the fire maps available on inci-web, you might find that you are right about some forest fires — nearly sterilized soil over large areas. Others have a big majority of light burns which will prepare the forest for regeneration. However, will the bark beetles now attack the vigorous new pines, and has the climate warmed so much that the area now has the climate of sagebrush steppe or pinyon/juniper forest? That would mean is might be to droughty and/or hot for pines to reoccupy the site.


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George Wuerthner