COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- A viable timber industry is needed to help the U.S. Forest Service deal in an economical way with bark beetle infestations that have been ravaging forests in the Rocky Mountain West, an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.
Robert Bonnie, a senior advisor to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, said Thursday that the Forest Service is relying on the timber companies to thin stands of unhealthy, crowded trees.
"The Forest Service is going to have to pay someone to do it, if they can't sell that timber," Bonnie told a receptive audience at a small- diameter log conference in northern Idaho. "We need forest management for the health of the landscape and the economic stability of rural communities."
But officials say many rural communities have lost sawmills due to various reasons, including a sagging U.S. housing market.
John Konzen, county commissioner in Lincoln County, Mont., said a lack of sawmills there means trees cut on the Kootenai National Forest are trucked out of state for processing. The nearest mill is at Moyie Springs, he said.
The Forest Service last year pledged $54 million to fight bark beetles, which since the late 1990s have killed 5,550 square miles of lodgepole pine and spruce forest in the Rockies. The money is intended to thin trees to reduce wildfire danger near rural communities while restoring watershed health.
The beetles are blamed for killing trees from Lolo Pass to Lookout Pass along the Idaho-Montana border.
The costs of thinning projects escalate if the Forest Service has to pay someone to do it rather than selling the timber, Bonnie said.
Conservation groups are starting to understand the role that timber companies have in keeping forests healthy, and taking part in collaboration efforts, he said. If fewer timber sales are delayed through legal action, mills have a steadier stream of timber from federal lands, Bonnie said.
That allows timber companies to continue operating and strengthen local communities, he said.
Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League said one of the main problems with attempting to log beetle-killed stands is that it's not profitable for timber companies.
"The fundamental core issue with pulling out beetle-killed timber is that it generally doesn't pay its way out of the woods," Oppenheimer told The Associated Press on Friday.
Conservation groups are looking at areas where collaboration is possible, he said.
"In general, we need a multifaceted approach," Oppenheimer said.
The destruction caused by beetles also extends farther south down the Rockies.
A recent aerial survey by the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado State Forest Service showed the epidemic has spread across 4 million acres of trees in Colorado and Wyoming, devastating entire forests in Colorado's Summit, Grand and Eagle counties.
There's some indication that the timber industry is responding.
A Utah company plans recently announced that it intends to operate a sawmill in Encampment, Wyo. -- a small town near the Colorado border -- to process beetle-killed trees from the Medicine Bow National Forest.
Thompson Logging of Kamas, Utah, said it expects to employ 15 to 18 people by mid-April at the sawmill, The Rawlins (Wyo.) Daily Times reported this month.
Company President Terry Thompson said he expects to be able to operate for years in the area because of the massive amount of beetle-killed timber.