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Death of a forest

Alex Miller
Shane Macomber/Vail DailyPhil Bowden, fuels management specialist with the US Forest Service, discusses the Vail Forest Health Plan Monday above Donovan park in Vail. This summer and fall, a great many dead and dying trees will be cut and burned in areas surrounding Vail, both to remove fuel sources and to stimulate new growth.
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VAIL – It seems there’s just not much good news for trees these days.

Between the mountain pine beetles decimating lodgepole pines across the West to a mysterious illness affecting aspen trees, foresters are already looking ahead to what the landscape will look like in the future.

“This mature pine forest is a goner,” said Cal Wettstein, district ranger for the Holy Cross and Eagle ranger districts. “We’re focusing on the next forest.”

Asked what the future holds for the Vail Valley’s forest, Wettstein said simply “large fires.”

Over the next two decades, the beetle-killed trees will shed their needles and their branches, then fall down and contribute to a tremendous load of fuel on the forest floor, Wettstein said. At that point, he said, it’s a waiting game as to when the combination of fuel, weather and a spark culminates in a large-scale fire.

“It’s not if, but when,” Wettstein said.

Referencing other large fires in recent years, he said the factors that cause them are often decades in the making. The Big Fish fire in the Flattops Wilderness four years ago, for example, followed a spruce beetle outbreak in the 1950s, Wettstein said. The Yellowstone fires in the 1980s were set up by conditions dating back to the 1930s.

“It’s inevitable,” he said. “We can’t treat it all.”

That said, the Forest Service is moving into high gear this summer to do what it can to lessen the danger in the forest surrounding urban and resort areas.

In the area between Vail Pass and Avon along Interstate 70, the Vail Valley Forest Health Project is targeting 211 acres of beetle-infested lodgepole and another 338 acres of aspen requiring “enhancement.”

In a field trip conducted Monday, Wettstein, along with Phil Bowden, the fuels management specialist for the Forest, and Cary Green, timber management assistant, pointed out areas being worked on this summer and fall.

In one area above Donovan Park in West Vail, scores of dead lodgepole have been cut down and stacked in piles for burning as soon as snow is on the ground this fall.

Bowden pointed to new shoots of aspen already growing in the areas where the pines were cut. He said the aspen were already under there, just waiting for an opportunity to grow.

“There may be a lot of areas where these pine are gone that get taken over by aspen,” he said.

For the most part, that’s a good thing, because aspen is a somewhat less-flammable tree. Also, having it mixed in with the remaining lodgepole pine, spruce and fir trees creates more of a “mosaic,” Wettstein said.

The goal is to have a mix of trees of different ages and species along the interface with the towns and the ski area. That kind of diverse forest is less susceptible to a catastrophic fire, he said.

A few hundred yards from the stacks of dead pine are similar piles of aspen. Some were actually healthy when cut, while others were dead or dying. Bowden explained that thinning the stands makes new shoots appear, and also diversifies the age of the stands from older trees to younger.

“A lot of people are asking me why we’re cutting healthy-looking aspen,” Wettstein said. “It’s to stimulate regeneration, and healthy aspen stands are natural fuel breaks as the dead pine starts to burn.”

Bowden and Wettstein both acknowledge that people have a hard time squaring the current view of the forest with their expectations. After all, the beetle epidemic has progressed quickly, greatly altering the look of the forest in just a few years.

“We didn’t anticipate this mortality rate, with tens, hundreds of thousands of dead trees,” Wettstein said. “It’s outrun our planning process.”

Bowden said the red trees we see today were actually infested a year or two ago. It takes two or three years for the trees to go from red to the dead, gray look they acquire after the needles fall off. As bad as it looks in Eagle County, he said, it’s even worse in Summit and Grand counties.

Wettstein said some of the dead trees are making their way to the timber mill in Montrose, but there’s a window of opportunity for using the wood.

“They’re only good for six or eight years,” he said. “Trees on the stump start to get big cracks in them after that, so they’re not good for lumber. Although they’re OK for house logs.”

Part of Monday’s field trip was also to take a look at areas of the forest that have been cut or burned in the past.

One hillside above Vail’s Potato Patch area was subject to a wildland fire in April of 1995.

A look at the area today along the Red Sandstone North Trail shows a healthy assortment of underbrush, bushes and juvenile aspen 8-10 feet tall.

Some dead pine still standing are reminders of the fire, but mostly the area appears to have come back quite well.

Nearby, an older clearcut area comprised mostly of lodgepole also looks pretty healthy. Bowden said the area was cut in the 1970s, then later thinned.

Compared to nearby hillsides ravaged by pine beetle, the area is remarkably untouched, with healthy trees all around.

“It used to look ugly to people, but now it looks pretty good compared to the rest,” Bowden said.

Wettstein pointed out that, following a pine-beetle outbreak in the early 1980s, entomologists recommended clear-cutting large swaths of forest to stimulate new growth and forest diversity.

The suggestion was to cut some 52,000 acres of forest between Vail and Summit counties, he said, but only about 1,200 acres were cut in that period.

“The entomologist predicted this exactly,” Wettstein said. “But the social and political atmosphere being what it is ” here we are.”

Alex Miller can be reached at 748-2931, or amiller@vaildaily.com.

Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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