Energy & Environment

Beetle Damage Costs Wyoming Co-op

By Todd H. Cunningham | ECT Staff Writer Published: April 26th, 2011

Almost two years after an executive at a Wyoming co-op warned Congress that “time is running out” for dealing with the devastation a voracious beetle has caused in western forests, the utility has passed the halfway mark in its battle against the insect.   

A Forest Service ranger in southern Wyoming stands in an area cleared of pine trees killed by beetles. (Photo By: AP Photo/Mead Gruver)

A Forest Service ranger in southern Wyoming stands in an area cleared of pine trees killed by beetles. (Photo By: AP Photo/Mead Gruver)

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    Charles Larsen, general manager of Saratoga-based Carbon Power and Light, told ECT.coop that the co-op has completed about 60 percent of a project clearing and removing beetle-damaged trees that it began last June.

    The tab has run to more than $1 million to date, with the Rural Utilities Service approving the use of its loan funds for the project, he said.

    The campaign pits Carbon Power and Light—and, on a larger scale, utilities and other entities throughout the West—against the tiny mountain pine beetle, a rice grain-sized pest with a taste for trees.   

    Swarms of the beetles infest trees, burrowing in and devouring their hosts’ circulatory systems. The beetles fly on to their next meal, leaving behind dead trees that could topple utility distribution lines.   

    Larsen was among those who sounded the alarm during a June 2009 joint hearing by two House subcommittees, describing the danger posed by falling trees and the federal red tape that stands in the way of confronting the challenge. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the beetle has affected 3.6 million acres since the first insect outbreak in 1996.

    The co-op’s focus is on 34 miles of lines through wooded areas in its service territory. It is clearing a corridor 150 feet wide—75 feet on either side of the center line—a substantial increase from the 15 feet on either side that it previously maintained.

    As the vegetation regenerates, Larsen said the co-op will maintain a 50-foot-wide right-of-way.

    The mountain pine beetle, about the size of a grain of rice, is causing large-scale damage to forests in the West. (Photo By: U.S. Forest Service)

    The mountain pine beetle, about the size of a grain of rice, is causing large-scale damage to forests in the West. (Photo By: U.S. Forest Service)

    Even after the right-of-way clearance is completed, removing the threat of trees falling on power lines, other concerns remain. One is the danger of fire, because dry dead trees provide ready fuel for a conflagration.   

    Additionally, Larsen said that the snowpack in some areas of the forest is 150 percent of normal, with snow still falling in some high-country areas.

    As the weather warms up, particularly in areas where dead trees have lost their needles, “it will melt real fast,” posing the possibility of flooding, he said.


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