Beetle-ravaged forests prompt pleas for aid

WASHINGTON (AP) — Officials from Rocky Mountain states urged Congress on Tuesday help them avert a potential catastrophe this summer as they grapple with millions of acres of beetle-ravaged pines that are prone to fire.

Local government officials and forestry experts told the House Natural Resources Committee at a hearing Tuesday that small towns, ski resorts, water supplies and electricity transmission lines surrounded by dead or dying forests are at risk for wildfires.

'The inevitable looms on the horizon like a gathering storm,' John Rich, a commissioner from Jackson County, Colo., said in prepared testimony. 'Shame on us if we do not heed the storm clouds and fail to take the actions necessary to adequately prepare.'

Rich quoted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator, as describing the mountain pine beetle infestation as the 'Katrina of the West.'

The pine beetle epidemic, which hit Colorado in 1996, has spread to more 2 million acres in the state. U.S. Forest Service officials have predicted that by the end of 2013, beetles will kill most of the state's lodgepole pines, the predominant pine at higher elevations.

Other severely affected states include Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. In Canada, more than 22 million acres have been affected and scientists suspect that the death of so many trees is altering local weather patterns and air quality.

'In spite of the state's best efforts, resources are limited and it is incumbent upon the federal government to act more aggressively to suppress and prevent fires,' two Colorado lawmakers said in joint testimony.

State Sen. Dan Gibbs and state Rep. Christine Scanlan also said they want the federal government to help create a market for wood products - including wood pellets that can be burned to create energy - made from the dead trees.