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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Of Beetles and Biomass

Author: Guest Writer/Thursday, January 10, 2013/Categories: Uncategorized

For years, residents of the Central Rocky Mountains have lamented the proliferation of the mountain pine beetle, which has killed lodgepole pine trees across some 4 million acres of forest. In Grand and Summit counties in Colorado, entire mountainsides have turned from a deep green to rusty brown as the infestation has spread. The damage to forests in British Columbia has been even more widespread.

The beetles have always lived in the Rockies, but drought has weakened trees and warmer temperatures have enabled the numbers of beetles to grow far beyond their historic levels. Lengthy periods of below-zero temperatures can kill the bugs, but the region has seen fewer of these deep freezes in recent years. Entire watersheds are now threatened by wildfire, if huge stands of dead timber should ignite; the standing dead logs also threaten power lines, highways, homes and campgrounds.

U.S. Forest Service photo

Recent studies show the infestation is beginning to wane, essentially because the beetles’ chief food source — trees — is running out.

There are benefits to this scourge, however. Biologists say the even-aged, monoculture forests of today — a byproduct of an earlier, logging-oriented economy — eventually will be replaced by healthier, mixed forests of pine, fir, spruce and aspen.

Additionally, new biomass power plants are in the planning stages, as entrepreneurs attempt to put some of this dead timber to use. Of course, power plants aren’t generally regarded as good neighbors, and those who live near proposed biomass projects question both the local impacts of log-incineration, and whether it actually constitutes green, renewable power. (Burning woody biomass is generally seen as carbon-neutral because decomposing trees and plants release CO2 anyway, and growing plants absorb CO2.) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is researching the carbon impacts of biomass incineration, and a regulatory determination is expected by 2014.

– Bob Ward


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