Just as it crosses property lines in its assault on ponderosa pine forests, the mountain pine beetle is bridging the political divide in Washington, D.C.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., is getting help in the battle against the bug from Democratic senators in states where the beetle has devastated large swaths of forest and threatens to invade others.
With a vote on the massive federal farm bill possible this week in the U.S. Senate, Thune is working with Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado to bolster provisions already inserted into the comprehensive legislation to add more weapons to the war on beetles.
Nowhere is the war raging more intensely than in Colorado, Thune said.
“They’ve got a crisis in Colorado now in the Rockies with the wildfires, much of it brought on by the pine beetles and the dead trees and the fuel load,” Thune said. “We’ve been fortunate in South Dakota that we haven’t had that kind of fire season. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t.”
Thune’s beefed-up beetle-control provisions were inserted into the farm bill while it was in the Senate Agriculture Committee. They include authorization for up to $100 million for pine-beetle response projects across bug-troubled forests. The language provides emergency options that would move projects through and past environmental regulations more quickly when the need is urgent.
And forest managers in South Dakota -- and elsewhere -- consider it urgent.
Udall, son of the late Morris “Mo” Udall, a long-serving congressman and Democratic presidential candidate from Arizona, has now joined Thune in that effort. But Udall wants to increase the authorization to $200 million. And Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, is joining the effort as well.
Funding authorizations are not funding appropriations, so it's difficult to guess how much funding it might actually produce. But the bipartisan nature of the push is a bonus.
The collaboration with senators in states where pine beetles are chewing up forests will increase the chances of the language winning approval, Thune said. Udall said in a comment provided by his staff that with 41.7 million acres of trees killed by pine beetles across the western United States, bipartisan cooperation is essential.
“These beetles don’t see red trees and blue trees, so it is fitting that we can work together across the aisle to address the issue of forest health,” Udall said. “The wildfires raging in Colorado and across the region underline the importance of mitigating the effects of bark beetles.
“We cannot turn back the clock on bark beetles,” Udall said. “But we can work to protect communities and critical infrastructure. I am pleased Sen. Thune and I are able to work together on this effort.”
South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat, has signed on as a co-sponsor of the Udall amendment.
Thune said he is hopeful the pine-beetle provisions will remain part of the farm bill and that the overall package can be approved by the Senate by the end of the week.
He said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, should look favorably on the provisions, particularly now that they have added Democratic support.
“He should be for it,” Thune said of Reid. “Anybody with national forests ought to be for this.”