Aspen’s Smuggler Mountain may see beetle battle again |

Aspen’s Smuggler Mountain may see beetle battle again

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart/Aspen Times fileForestry consultant Jeff Webster last fall removes some of the bark layer from a Smuggler lodgepole pine infested with pine beetles to check the advance of the insects and estimate how long ago the tree was infested. He is now helping Aspen and Pitkin County officials develop a forest management plan for open space on the mountain.

ASPEN – Aspen’s Smuggler Mountain is likely to see a second year of effort to slow the spread of the mountain pine beetle, but whether the spectacle of giant pines dangling below a helicopter is again part of the picture remains to be seen.

A consultant, forester Jeff Webster, is working with local open space officials on a forest management plan for 250 acres of open space on Smuggler, owned jointly by the city of Aspen and Pitkin County. Its short- and long-term recommendations will be broader than what to do about the destructive insects that were the focus of last year’s pine beetle experiment, but some continuation of that effort will likely be part of the plan, said Stephen Ellsperman, parks and open space director for the city.

The plan, and its recommendations, are tentatively scheduled for presentation to the city and county open space boards on April 8.

Last year, For the Forest, a local conservation group, proposed a radical effort to halt the spread of the beetle on the heavily used open space. Early in the summer, 202 lodgepole pines infested with beetle larvae were felled and removed from the project area with the help of a helicopter that hauled to trees to a central site on the property. There, the trees were stripped before the trunks were trucked down the mountain. Then, verbenone packets were stapled to trees, spaced about every 40 feet, in a 130-acre area. Verbenone flakes spread on the ground were also tested. The biodegradable, natural pheremone fools adult beetles into leaving healthy trees alone, sending the message that trees are already infested.

The tree removal and verbenone application cost $110,000, with the city and county putting up about $45,000 jointly and For the Forest funding the remainder. A follow-up study to collect data that was analyzed to assess the project’s effectiveness cost about $48,000, split equally by the city, county, For the Forest and a private landowner whose property on Smuggler was involved in the treatment and study.

Researchers concluded beetle attack rates were significantly lower in the study area than in adjacent stands of trees where nothing was done.

“Obviously, the success of last year warrants some continuation of work, but also, it was very expensive,” said Gary Tennenbaum, land steward for the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program.

To do nothing this year, he said, could subject the open space to another round of beetle attack.

“If you’re going to really try to stop the beetles, you have to keep it going until the beetles outside your border calm down,” Tennenbaum said. “What we did last year was kind of a Band-Aid. It gave us time to do this planning.”

“We’re definitely in year two of a two-year study that looks closely at the effectiveness of those treatments,” Ellsperman said.

Researchers also concluded the density of tree stands, the diversity in species and diversity of tree age are all factors in how susceptible a forest is to beetle decimation. Simply thinning trees can improve forest health, they advised.

Those considerations will all be part of the forest management plan for the Smuggler open space, Tennenbaum said.

The plan will also address forestry issues unrelated to lodgepole pines and mountain pine beetles. Fir and aspen trees face their own issues, he noted.

“We’re not looking at the mountain pine beetle as the only forest health issue we have to deal with,” Ellsperman agreed.

For the Forest, which pitched last year’s effort to the city and county and garnered their participation, is a willing financial partner again this year, according to John Bennett, executive director.

“They’ve told us that they want us to collaborate with them,” he said. “It’s their land – they’re taking the lead.”

The outbreak of beetles has left large swaths of Colorado forests dead. Roughly 3.6 million acres in Colorado and southern Wyoming have been infested, forest officials have said.

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