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Dead And Dying: Sounding The Alarm Over The Health Of NW Forests

You don't have to be a forester to see that giant swaths of Northwest forests are dead or dying. The infected areas stand out like a sore thumb: rust-red dead trees where once healthy evergreens stood.

Especially east of the Cascades, bugs and disease are feasting on forests made vulnerable by drought and overcrowding. Now the question is: how to stop the spread of this epidemic. Correspondent Austin Jenkins reports.

Gary Berndt with the Washington Department of Natural Resources stops his Chevy Blazer along a road near White Pass in Southwest Washington.

Gary Berndt: "This is a pretty good spot."

He gets out and points to a stand of nearby Evergreens.

Gary Berndt: "The Douglas Fir over there, the small Grand Fir are being attacked."

The culprit is the Spruce Bud Worm. It attacks the new growth that comes out on the tree every spring.

Gary Berndt: "The new buds, hence the Bud Worm, and it eats that very voraciously as it works its way down the tree."

Bud Worm is one of several bugs and diseases that are killing broad swaths of Northwest forest. In Washington State, about ten percent of the forestland is classified as dead or dying. The problem is less severe, but just as worrisome in Oregon and Idaho.

Berndt says the problem is the forests have gotten too dense. That means the trees are weaker and more disease-prone.

Gary Berndt: "By being dense the bug can attack several trees all at the same time in close proximity."

Most of the damage in the Northwest is on federal land. But state and private timber holdings are also affected. Washington Lands Commission Doug Sutherland blames bad logging practices of the past. He also points to the near century-old philosophy that forest fires are bad.

Doug Sutherland: "Because we've been fighting fire since the early 1930s, we've been putting fire out. By putting fires out we have seen a significant growth of trees that may not necessarily be part of that natural forest."

In other words, humans have disrupted the natural cycle of forests. The dense, diseased stands are a recipe for catastrophic fires. The obvious answer, says Sutherland, is to thin unhealthy forests before a fire breaks out.

That's why earlier this year the Washington legislature passed a carrot-and-stick forest health bill. The focus is on educating private landowners. But it also allows the state to order them to clean up their forests. Vicki Christiansen is Washington's chief forester.

Vicki Christiannsen: "The result would be if they don't do the right kinds of actions on their lands to deal with some of these forest health conditions, they potentially could be liable for a piece or a portion of the fire costs should one should get started in those excessive fuels."

Backers call the legislation a good first step - but it's hardly a panacea. For instance, there's no money to fund thinning operations. Also, the legislation doesn't address what to do about dead and dying trees on public land.

Even so, outside observers like Steve Pedery with the environmental group Oregon Wild think Washington is on the right track.

Steve Pedery: "There's common ground now understanding that we have through fire suppression, through going after the big trees and leaving the younger trees, through clear-cutting we have really made a mess in some of these  forests and it's going to take some thinning to try to get these areas back on a more natural trajectory."

The problem is thinning doesn't pay like logging does. But what if it could be made profitable? Back at White Pass, Gary Berndt with the Washington Department of Natural Resources likes that idea.

Steve Pedery: "There's a huge biomass that has developed out in the forest and I think all of the public agencies and I'm certain several industries are looking at how can we utilize the smaller materials and make a profit."

In the meantime, Berndt is taking the long view. He knows the repair work won't happen overnight.

On the web: Healthy Forest Bill

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