Feds blame enviros for beetle spread | VailDaily.com

Feds blame enviros for beetle spread

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Forest Service officials on Thursday departed from their usual caution when dealing with controversial issues and said environmentalists delayed a salvage project that could have prevented the spread of a spruce beetle epidemic.

The project to clear thousands of trees toppled by a wind storm on 3,000 acres southwest of Glenwood Springs was approved in 2001. It was approved partly to remove dead trees that provide fertile ground for beetles and their eggs.

Environmentalist opposed the project and after years of haggling, agreed on a salvage project that was launched this week.

“The original treatments were proposed when the beetles were still contained to the blowdown trees,” the Forest Service said. “The settlement was made after the beetles had moved out of the blowdown and were killing healthy spruce.”

Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, heatedly disputed the Forest Service’s news release, which he characterized as, “If those damn environmentalists hadn’t slowed us down we could have done something about this.”

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He countered that if the Forest Service “hadn’t gotten greedy and gone for a windfall” there would have been no objection to the timber project. Wilderness Workshop was among the group that appealed and sued over the Baylor Park project.

Shoemaker claimed the timber sale of live trees wasn’t necessary to prevent the beetle epidemic. It was intended to raise money for the agency, he said.

“We would have stood aside and said, ‘Go for it. We won’t stand in your way if you stay in the blowdown area,'” he said.

The beetles have the potential to alter the look of the White River National Forest from Ski Sunlight to McClure Pass and into the Aspen area. Large spruce trees on more than 100,000 acres 20 miles southwest of Glenwood could be doomed, according to forestry expert Jim Thinnes, who works out of the Forest Service’s Lakewood office.

“We don’t know how big it’s going to get,” Thinnes said. “I’d say it’s extremely big. It’s almost like a fire starting. We can’t stop it at this point.”

Spruce beetles are always lurking in the forest. Under normal circumstances, healthy trees can repel attacks from beetles that try to burrow in to lay eggs.

When the windstorm struck the area ” where Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa counties converge ” the beetles had an instant insect buffet of damaged and weakened spruce trees. The beetles laid millions of eggs and the larvae spent two years feasting on an inner layer of bark. They emerged and started the process over.

When the downed trees no longer provided suitable habitat, the beetles sought live trees.

“They really focus on the biggest spruce. The bigger the better almost,” Thinnes said.

Thinnes said the spruce beetles’ work shouldn’t be confused with that of the mountain pine beetle, which attacks lodgepole pine and turns trees a rust color. The Vail area and Summit County have been hit hard by the mountain pine beetle.

Environmentalists question why the agency wanted to interfere in a natural process. Spruce beetle outbreaks have occurred since there were spruce trees, Shoemaker reasoned.

“This is what happens,” he said. “This is how forests regenerate themselves. They probably shouldn’t be doing anything, because it’s how healthy forests behave.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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