CHEYENNE -- Some national forests in Colorado and Wyoming may have to be closed if the U.S. Forest Service cannot hasten cleanup of beetle-infested trees, Regional Forester Rick Cables said Tuesday.

Testifying here before the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, Cables said he expects 100,000 trees a day to fall in the national forests in the two states over the next 10 years.

"The trees are falling," Cables said. "We've had several near misses already where falling trees have come close to hurting people."

The forest land closures, he said, may be necessary for the safety of the public and Forest Service employees.

About 100 people attended the congressional field hearing at Laramie County Community College. It was hosted by U.S. Rep.Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., a member of the committee that is doing preliminary work on the 2012 farm bill.

Cables said it would cost more than $100 million to clear every road and campsite of dead trees at the price of the last contract issued.

During his regular news conference Tuesday, Gov. Dave Freudenthal said the pine beetle epidemic "is going to turn out to be an ecological disaster in terms of its impact on everything from fishing to how we manage water to, frankly, just the water available for agricultural use."

As for Forest Service estimates that 100,000 trees are falling daily as the result of beetle kill, the governor said he doesn't count trees and will have to take the agency's word for it.

"What I don’t like is the implication that the Forest Service is trying to use that number as a basis to begin to close the forests, for public safety. I think that it is a bit of an overreaction," he said.

Deadfall, he said, should not close forests.

During the hearing, Cables and other witnesses testified that because of the scope of the problem, it is important that industry use the lumber and reduce costs to government.

Nancy M. Fishering represents Intermountain Resources LLC, owner of the closed sawmill at Saratoga. She said an increase of $57 million in the Forest Service budget for management of forest products in the new farm bill would help keep the industry alive.

The money, she said, would allow an increase in production from 2.4 billion to 3 billion board feet of lumber, a growth that would generate 6,600 jobs.

The banks, Fishering said, are "risk averse" and are not eager to back timber industry revenue bonds or loans.

In answer to a question from Lummis, Fishering said long-term timber contracts might help make the banks more comfortable with financing and enable reopening of the Saratoga lumber operation.

State Forester Bill Crapser testified that Wyoming is facing forest health issues that are probably unprecedented. A major problem is lack of a viable forest products industry.

Crapser said after the meeting the only large operating lumber mill in Wyoming is Devil's Tower Lumber in Hulett.

Crapser said the 300,000 acres of state forest land are school trust lands that are managed more intensively than federal forest lands to raise money for schools. Since about 35 percent of state forest land has been harvested over the past 20 years, the stands of lodgepole pine are too young to be affected by the bark beetle.

In Colorado, Crapser said, the trees are old and susceptible to deadly beetle infestations.

Contact capital bureau reporter Joan Barron at (307) 632-1244 or joan.barron@trib.com

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