Aspen braces for beetle infestation
ASPEN, Colorado ” One of Aspen’s favorite backcountry playgrounds will change dramatically over the next decade because of an infestation of mountain pine beetles, according to forestry experts.
An assessment of nearly 2,200 acres of private and public land on Smuggler Mountain found that only a small number of lodgepole pine trees have been killed by the pests. But that number is expected to jump significantly in the next decade, according to officials with Dahl Environmental Services LLC.
“One thing is certain, 10 years from now, that mountain won’t look that way,” said Wayne Shepperd, a consulting silviculturist, or one who specializes in the care and cultivation of forest trees. He is working with Dahl Environmental.
The firm was hired by the Roaring Fork Valley Forest Coalition and a nonprofit called For the Forest to study the beetle threat and ponder possible management strategies for Smuggler Mountain.
The assessment confirmed what is visible to the eye ” beetle kill on Smuggler Mountain lags well behind other parts of Colorado, like the Vail area, Summit County and the Winter Park area. A drive along Interstate 70 reveals large swaths of forest that have turned a rust color because of all the dead and dying lodgepoles. The mortality is more spotty on Smuggler Mountain.
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“Recent mortality was found in only six of the 45 [forest] stands inventoried in 2008 …,” the Dahl study says. “The infested stands total 688 acres, or 31.5 percent of the assessment area.”
A diversity of trees works to Smuggler Mountain’s advantage. The lodgepoles aren’t as thick as they are in harder-hit parts of the state, and they are mixed with other species like aspen and Douglas fir.
However, some stands near the top of Smuggler Mountain are nearly 100 percent lodgepole, said Bruce Short, a certified forester working with Dahl Environmental. He said one visible place where beetle kill is apparent is near the large microwave tower alongside upper Smuggler Mountain Road. The tower looks like a big movie screen. North of that tower is a clump of dead and dying lodgepole.
Once the infestation starts, it is impossible to stop, the consultants told public land managers and interested members of the public during a briefing this week. Shepperd said a rule of thumb is that every infected tree will lead to five infected trees the following year, showing the rapid growth that has affected 2 million acres already in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming.
So, it’s not a question of whether parts of the forest on Smuggler Mountain will die off, but how much and how soon. It will have a visual impact, especially for skiers on Aspen Mountain and people hiking, biking and skiing on Smuggler Mountain. But the appearance will be the least of Aspen’s worries.
“Even with the optimistic expectation of moderate mountain pine beetle mortality, the real forest health issue in the Hunter Creek assessment area is likely to be increasing risk of wildfire,” the study says.
The dead trees and downed timber will eventually be tinder for a big fire. That wildfire wouldn’t pose a threat to the town of Aspen as much as pose a threat to Hunter Creek and potentially the Fryingpan River, the consultants said. If a fire decimates the area, runoff when the snow melts or during intense rainstorms could turn streams and rivers brown with mud, and put fish populations at risk.
Bjorn Dahl, a former forester with the U.S. Forest Service for 36 years and now a consultant, said the assessment was designed to help build public awareness of the issue, not propose a specific plan of action. He and the other consultants laid out several options available for dealing with the beetle infestation and its aftermath.
The solutions centered on thinning trees, although that would be no easy task. New roads are prohibited on some parts of Smuggler Mountain because of the Forest Service’s management plan. Political opposition from environmentalists and recreationists also makes widespread thinning difficult, the consultants noted. Tree thinning would require significant improvements to Smuggler Mountain Road, then running logging trucks and other heavy equipment. Aspenites will throw a fit if that plan is proposed without a thorough discussion and widespread agreement, members of the audience agreed.
But the study made it clear that no action also will have dire consequences.
“The dead lodgepole will begin falling within 10 years and can be a hazard if they are in proximity to roads, trails and other public use areas,” the study says. “The fuels resulting from the mountain pine beetle epidemic will be an increased wildfire hazard for up to 50 years.
“Under a no-treatment option, recreation use of the area will likely have to be severely restricted because of the hazard of falling trees, and danger of fire ignition during windy days and dry fuel conditions.”
Gary Tennenbaum, an official with the Pitkin County Trails and Open Space program, said public education about the problem and management options is critical before any action is taken. People don’t understand that an area so important to Aspen is inevitably going to face major change, he said.
Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman agreed that an extensive public education effort is needed, and that officials will have to move slowly and involve the public to determine solutions. He said an old adage applies well in this case: Sometimes you have to move slow to go fast.
Howie Mallory, an Aspen conservationist who attended the meeting, asked how urgent it is to take action.
“The best time to do something was 20 years ago,” Short replied, “but it’s not too late.”
Dahl added: “My impression is it’s early [in the infestation process], and that’s good.”
John Bennett, executive director of For the Forest, said the next step in the process will be holding public meetings to come up with a forest management plan for the 2,200-acre study area. Any management plan for the lands administered by the Forest Service will require a lengthy environmental study.
In the short term, the city of Aspen and Pitkin County might be able to thin and treat the forests on the lands they manage, Bennett said.