Udall wins approval for swifter action to target beetle epidemic
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
A bill that would grease the wheels on pine-beetle projects passed out of a U.S. Senate committee Thursday.
The National Forest Insect and Disease Emergency Act, sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), would streamline the approval process for projects that remove dead and dying trees from areas near homes, trails, roads, power lines, watersheds and other areas placed at risk by the beetle epidemic.
“Today, we’re one step closer to strengthening our response to the bark-beetle epidemic that threatens communities throughout Colorado and the West,” Udall said. “My bill will help the Forest Service focus treatment in the areas at high risk from wildfire and falling dead trees.”
The bill also encourages the conversion of removed dead trees into biofuels to be used as an alternative energy source. The bill’s next step is a vote by the full Senate.
Hours after the bill passed out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee Thursday, Udall met with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter to discuss the threats posed by the pine beetle. The meeting came two months after Udall demanded to know where and how $40 million in federal pine-beetle funds is being spent.
The funds were allocated to be used this summer, but Udall said constituents questioned him as to why they weren’t seeing more work done in forests. According to updates from the Forest Service, trees have been removed from thousands of acres in Colorado’s forests, and planning efforts are under way for many new projects. The Forest Service must comply with a well-established set of regulations before undertaking such work.
“To some here in D.C., the problem is academic, but it’s real for Coloradans living near these dead trees,” Udall said.
The senator invited Vilsack to tour areas of Colorado hit by the pine beetle epidemic.
“When you see it, you can’t ignore it anymore,” Udall said. “We’re really going to push him to come to Colorado and see the devastation.”
The bill that passed out of committee Thursday would not provide additional funds to address areas affected by the pine beetle, but Udall said he plans to use every opportunity to find the money to do the job. The senator estimated the pine beetle epidemic is a $600-million problem for Colorado, and at the current rate of funding, necessary work wouldn’t be complete for 20 years.
“Colorado is Ground Zero for a slow-moving natural disaster. It’s a Katrina-like event,” Udall said.
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Pitkin County administrators are proposing a more than $142 million budget for 2020, which is about $6 million less than this year because of fewer construction projects and capital improvements.