Global warming: Is state doing enough to protect timber from invading beetle?

An image of a beetle projected at a briefing for Gov. Jay Inslee and other officials on Wednesday. Credit: John Stang

These bad boys and girls are one-ninth-of-an-inch long. Bullet shaped. Reddish brown. Five points sticking out of each hard wing cover, dubbed "spines." 

These are tree-chomping beetles whose name sounds like a really far-out-there punk rock band: California Fivespined Ips.

Their larvae kill clumps of pine trees in California, Oregon and Washington's mountainside forests. And this year, the California Fivespined Ips beetles have gotten worse. Aerial surveys show about 2,800 trees across 650 acres of ponderosa pines killed by the beetles along the Columbia River Gorge, as well as along the eastern slopes of Washington's southern Cascades, according to Todd Murray, Washington State University Extension Service director for Klickitat and Skamania counties. By last year, the beetles had been spotted in small clumps as far north as Goldendale and Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The problem is that, if unchecked, the California Fivespined Ips and other beetle species have the potential to kill 2.7 million acres — a quarter of Washington's forests — in 15 years, said JT Austin, senior policy advisor on natural resources issues to Gov. Jay Inslee. Other beetle species — such as western pine beetles and red turpentine beetles — have gain footholds in the past. The California Fivespined Ips beetles first showed up in Washington in 2010, bringing with them the potential to make beetle infestations of state's forests much more widespread.

Inslee visited southern Washington on Wednesday to explore the problem. He and Austin linked the beetles' recent surge to Washington's climate warming due to increased carbon pollution, arguing that more money is needed to keep these beetles from ravaging Washington's timberlands in the long run.

Last year, Inslee asked the Legislature to appropriate $20 million for anti-beetle measures, but the tight overall state capital budget ultimately trimmed that to $4 million.

"We're way behind the curve on having the funds to do it. …. The state is going to have to have revenue to support this," Inslee told about 35 Klickitat and Skamania county elected officials, government administrators, tribal leaders and business representatives Wednesday in Bingen, on the Columbia.

For the past two years, Republicans and Democrats have deadlocked in Olympia on whether tax breaks should be closed and taxes should be increased on huge transportation and education obligations that amount to several billion dollars. As a result, other smaller programs — such as fighting beetles — operate with extremely tight appropriations. The federal government recently appropriated $300,000 to Washington to handle outreach programs on the beetle-infestation problem.

Inslee voiced optimism about getting extra money from the Legislature, saying that saving timberlands from beetles has bipartisan support.  

As he and Austin explain it, the climate change aspect works like this. Carbon pollution leads to warmer, often drier weather. And, while cold winters kill more beetles, beetles are more likely to survive warmer winters. Meanwhile, the state's droughts and a deluge of timber fires create more stress on trees, weakening them. And warmer weather makes those droughts and fires more likely.

The state has plans in place to thin out densely-packed forested areas to reduce the stress on the remaining trees, and to make it harder for adult beetles and fires to spread. Beetle repellents can also be used more. But the money is not there to implement the plans.

California Fivespined Ips and other beetle species emerge from trees as adults in the spring to seek out nearby weaker trees or fallen branches to colonize. The males bore holes into the bark, and then the trees and males emit scents to attract an average of three females to a borehole, where everyone mates. Then each of the impregnated females digs her own offshoot tunnel to lay eggs. Then larvae hatch out of the eggs to eat the tree's tissue beneath the bark. The larvae mostly attack tissue up to a one inch beneath the bark.

Ultimately, a pine tree can die from all of this. The killed trees tend to be in clumps as opposed to wide swaths within a forest.

Adding to the plague of tree-eating beetles are a couple of facts. One is that roughly 50 percent of already-mated adult beetles then head off to other trees to do the same thing all over again. The other is that the larvae from the spring eggs emerge as adult beetles in the mid-summer to do their own spreading, boring, mating and egg-laying. That second generation's' offspring lays dormant through a typical winter. A "weak tree" or a fallen branch is attractive to a California Fivespine Ips or other beetles, because a healthy tree defends itself by exuding sap to flush the beetles out.

Klickitat and Skamania government and utility officials noted that getting rid of pines killed off by the invading beetles, a step that can help deal with infestations, puts great strains on their small tree removal budgets as well as on private property owners. Klickitat County Commissioner David Sauter said: "It affects small land owners. The only solution we have is to a do a better job of managing these resources."

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

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