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Experts ponder pine beetles’ deadly toll

Nicole Frey
Chad Owsley/Vail Daily The north face of Vail Mountain may be laden with trees now, but experts predict the pine beetles could leave the mountain as bald as the Back Bowls. Vail Resorts officials say it is unlikely.
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VAIL – One day, 10 or 20 years from now, the front face of Vail Mountain may look more like the back bowls. Some foresters and timber experts are ‘fessing up to the drastic but real possibility that Vail Mountain will begin balding over the next few decades. “There’s potential for large, bald mountains,” said Cal Wettstein, district ranger in Eagle County for the U.S. Forest Service. “There’s a lot of diversity there now. But, we’ve got the aspen clones, so it’s broken up to some extent.”The back bowls are the result of fires, but (fire) is what we’re going to try to get ahead of in the next few years.”Fire or not, the lodgepole pines infested with pine beetles are going to die, and when they die, somehow they will come down. Wettstein estimated more than 90 percent of lodgepole pines may be teeming with the bug in some areas. The lingering questions are when will they die? And while the beetles started the job, what will finally destroy the trees? Finally, what, if anything, can be done about it?

As the pine beetles ravage the trees, several things may happen, experts said. When trees die, they begin to rot at the stump. Some may rot away until they fall over. Others, weakened by infestation, will be blown down when high winds whip though the valley. The most-dreaded scenario for many is that fire will clear the land. “Either you’re going to have a fire, or they’re all going to all be laying there,” said Mark Morgan, a forest management contractor and owner of Morgan Timber Products. “Either way, you’re going to have a dramatic change in the landscape. It’s the inevitability of it all at this point.”Hope for a cold winterBill Carlson, the environmental health officer and planner for the town of Vail, agreed Morgan’s predictions may come true, but said it will more likely take about 20 years until the lodgepole pines are weak enough to fall over. “You’re going to have them standing there; they’re just not going to be alive,” Carlson said. “I guess time will tell.”Vail Mountain spokeswoman Jen Brown said Vail Resorts representatives “do not anticipate that based upon the research, the front side of Vail Mountain will look like the Back Bowls in 10 years’ time.”

Although Morgan contended it’s too late to stop the infestation, he, like others, said an extremely cold winter could slow the spread of the insects.”I never say never,” he said. “It’s not a good life-insurance policy, but it’s possible. Realistically, you should be planning for how you want to deal with the dramatic change that’s going to come to your landscape.”The least amount of action would allow Mother Nature to take its course, accepting whatever she decided to dish out – not the ideal plan for those who fear their property may go up in smoke if a fire breaks out. Spruce and fir to the rescueA bare, fire-ravaged landscape would be more than simply unappealing to a valley that relies so heavily on its scenery to attract tourists. Without trees to hold the earth in place, soils may erode into rivers and streams, Morgan said. For Wettstein, mitigation efforts already underway are the only solution. “We need to remove the dead trees where we can reach them and where it’s feasible,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of things happening in the next few years to remove the pine beetle.”



Wettstein offered some hope, saying even though the lodgepole pine trees are coming down, spruce and fir trees will eventually fill in the bare patches. While some experts fear the beetles may eat themselves out of house and home, leaving only the smallest and youngest lodgepole pines to carry on, Carl Spaulding, president of the Colorado Timber Industry Association, said this is unlikely.”You are still going to have some trees there,” he said. “The beetles won’t take all of them, so there will be some left – if they all don’t burn.”Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or nfrey@vaildaily.com. Vail, Colorado


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