PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech forest owners face 40 billion crowns ($1.70 billion) of damage this year from an escalating spread of bark beetle that are killing the central European country's most common conifer trees, an industry think-tank said on Monday.
While native to conifer forests, bark beetle has benefited from the dry and hot summer that experts associate with climate change, which has weakened the trees' natural defences, and helped spawn an infestation of the insect.
The Czech Republic is one of the worst-affected countries but the spread ravaging soft timber, popular for its quick life cycle and preferred for use in construction, has also hit Germany, Austria, Slovakia, France and other European countries.
Central Europe's spruce forests are a key source of income for the timber industry.
The forests also conserve water and help cool down the landscape, capture carbon, prevent flooding and are a holiday and weekend destination for hikers, mushroom pickers and mountain bikers.
The Czech Forest think-tank said about 30 million cubic metres of timber was affected this year - higher than earlier estimates and nearly double the 18 million last year, which was already a multiple of amounts in previous years.
The area affected this year reaches an estimated 66,000 hectares, it said.
(For a graphic on 'Bark beetle in central Europe' click https://tmsnrt.rs/2W3P3zq)
A drop in timber prices meant logging costs often rose above sale prices, Czech Forest said. Losses also mounted due to the premature felling of trees and rising logging costs.
"The result of economic losses often is that it becomes impossible to finance the fight against the calamity, and reforest calamity land," the think-tank said.
Altogether, 450 million cubic metres of spruce timber was under direct threat of the bark beetle infestation, Czech Forest reported. This area included all remaining adult spruce and about half of all forested land in the country.
Authorities across the region have responded with aid to forest owners as well as a focus on replanting spruce monocultures with a more varied and thus more resilient forest including a larger share of slower-growing leafy trees.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Karishma Singh)