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Vilsack sends $40 million to fight Western bark beetle

The U.S. Forest Service will add $40 million to its efforts to combat a Western bark beetle infestation, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Tuesday.

"The bark beetle is in epidemic stages across Western states with millions of acres impacted and infected," Vilsack said in a telephone news conference with reporters. "Those areas have been especially severe and especially profound in the Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service."

More than 2.5 million acres have been infected, predominately in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota.

"The epidemic has a severe impact on the forest health and has resulted in a dramatic increase in the danger of trees falling on roads, trails and recreation areas," Vilsack said. "We are also deeply concerned about the increased fire hazard caused by dead and dying trees."

Minnesota, with the Chippewa and Superior National Forests, has little risk of the bark beetle at present, but the Forest Service hopes to a make a stand in South Dakota to prevent an eastward spread of the infestation, Vilsack said.

"I don't think there's an immediate risk in terms of spreading to the east, but having said that, that's one of the reasons why we are making this announcement," the former Iowa governor said. South Dakota Gov. Michael Rounds "has been working on a number of strategies to try to stem this invasion, and they believe that they've determined a couple of strategies that work pretty effectively."

Stepped up efforts in the Rocky Mountain Region will allow the Forest Service to learn what works and what doesn't, Vilsack said.

"The reality is that part of it has to do with the climate -- it doesn't get as cold as it used to in some of these areas," he said. "In the past, these beetles would be killed off with a deep freeze. Deep freezes aren't occurring; as a result, the beetles survive during the winter. And then, because of the close proximity of these trees, they basically hop from one tree to another, do their damage, and then move to the next tree."

The Forest Service will work in concert with state and local governments, he said, to stop the spread of the beetle now in Western states.

"This is about forest health; it's about making good on our promise to restore our forests," Vilsack said. "It's also about creating jobs at a time when that is very important."

Vilsack said the $40 million is being raised from $23.6 million from Forest Service national allocations, $10 million reallocated from the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region, $5 million from the federal economic stimulus package designated for wildland fire management and $2 million from carryover funds.

"It will be utilized in a variety of different ways, with a great deal of flexibility," he said. It includes harvesting the infected trees for pellet operations or pilot biomass energy projects.

"We intend to use this to focus on hazardous fuel reduction, on road and trail maintenance and on providing assistance to state and local governments so that they in turn can do the work that they need to do to protect the forests," Vilsack said.

Tuesday's announcement will help make forests more resilient to climate change and protect and preserve them for future generations, key goals of the new vision for America's forests outlined by Vilsack earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a statement.