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Beetles chewing up Basalt forests

Paul Conrad/The Aspen TimesMike O'Link of Basalt examines pinon bark bored by the ips beetle. O'Link is educating his neighborhood about the threat the beetles pose to the trees in the area.
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BASALT, Colorado ” Mike O’Link peeled off a shingle-sized piece of bark from a pinon pine in the sun-drenched hills above Basalt on Monday morning, exposing a dozen pests that have the ability to overhaul the Roaring Fork Valley’s landscape.

The ips beetles were burrowed into the bark, dormant for the winter. Come spring, when temperatures finally rise above 50 degrees, those beetles, and thousands of others, will emerge from the dead pinon and find another weak tree to ravage.

The males attack a tree, release a pheromone that attracts females and triggers a beetle orgy that results in numerous eggs being laid. The larvae feast on the cambium, a thin layer just beneath the outer bark, and eventually kill the host.

A majestic pinon with a 20-inch diameter, which probably requires centuries to reach that size, can be dead in just two or three years.

O’Link has witnessed several such deaths in and around the Aspen Junction subdivision. The south-facing hillside, which stretches from El Jebel to downtown Basalt, is a buffet for ips beetles. He hopes to expel the uninvited guests.

“It takes so long for these trees to grow,” O’Link said. “It’d be a shame to lose them out of complacency.”

O’Link was president of his homeowners’ association in 2004 when he decided to try to do something about the infestation affecting his neighborhood. He got his board’s permission to cut down and treat trees in the subdivision’s open space above Original Road.

He volunteered his labor to cut down and strip the bark off 32 infected trees in 2004, 27 trees the following year, and 14 trees in 2006. He immediately burned all the wood of the infested trees and stripped the bark off the trunks, even going beneath ground level to expose all the pests.

The work seemed to pay off. O’Link didn’t spot any more dead trees last year. This winter he spotted three on an individual lot. He is trying to contact the homeowner, who doesn’t live on the property, to get permission to treat the trees.

The current Aspen Junction Homeowners’ Association board of directors has embraced the idea of treating trees as problems arise. They want to prevent the pests from spreading. That will depend on the diligence of the individual homeowners. One untreated property could eventually create problems for the entire subdivision.

The subdivision’s goal could be tough to achieve. Aspen Junction covers a fraction of an immense, pinon-covered hillside. Land managed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife is adjacent to the subdivision. Bureau of Land Management property is a short distance away. Unless the public land management agencies treat their trees as well, the hillside could eventually turn brown.

Ips beetles killed pinons on 800,000 acres of Colorado in 2003 and 500,000 in 2004, according to the Colorado State Forest Service. The southwestern and southern part of the state were hit particularly hard.

A top state forest service official, now retired, told The Aspen Times in December 2003 that he expected the beetle to hit the Roaring Fork Valley hard.

The valley, and most of the rest of the state, got a reprieve when a drought eased in 2004. This year’s ample snowfall also will reduce the stress on pinons and help them ward off invaders.

But O’Link’s reconnaissance Monday morning proves the pests are lurking. They can fly up to 2 miles to seek a new host. Some trees on that hillside were irreparably stressed during the drought and remain susceptible.

O’Link’s got two reasons to want to stop the infestation. He lived in Alaska for 35 years and witnessed the devastation wrought by another bark beetle. Hundreds of thousands of spruce trees were killed in the wilderness of the Kenai Peninsula.

He doesn’t want to see that happen to pinon pines, the signature trees of many parts of the Roaring Fork Valley and Colorado’s state tree.

His second reason hits closer to home. He will soon build a house at the top of Original Road. The lot would lose its charm without its pinon pines.


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