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For the forest, no easy answers

Sarah L. Stewart

It wasn’t the view that sold Ann Wilson on the wooded seven-acre lot blanketing a hillside in Cordillera. It wasn’t the proximity to world-class skiing, or the exclusivity of a mountaintop dream home.

It was the smell.

“I got it because I liked the smell of pine trees,” she says.

Eight years later, Wilson’s lodgepoles have been decimated by the mountain pine beetle. Last year, she and her husband removed 200 beetle-killed trees from the lot; this year, another 200 are marked for removal.

It’s easy to forget, beneath winter’s forgiving layer of white, just how many dead and dying pines cover our hillsides. But as spring reveals the mountain pine beetle’s hallmark rust-colored trees ” which covered 48,500 acres in Eagle County last year ” we’re reminded of the scope of the problem, and the dilemma over what to do about it.

Already this year, campgrounds throughout Colorado have postponed or canceled opening in order to remove beetle-killed trees, which can fuel wildfires or fall on people or buildings. Last year, the town of Vail removed 7,200 infected trees, and expects to do about the same this year. The Cordillera Metro District removed 12,000 a year ago.

Dead trees on private property ” particularly close to homes ” present the same hazards, forcing property owners like Wilson to make difficult choices about what to do.

From chemical spraying of healthy trees to clear-cutting entire tracts of dead trees, there is no perfect solution. Whatever homeowners with lodgepoles on their property decide, they should be ready for their land to look much different in the coming years ” if it doesn’t already.

“The whole landscape is changing,” says Cary Green, forester in the Holy Cross/Eagle Ranger District of White River National Forest. “We’re just kind of in that rebuilding process.”

In the 15 years since Merv Lapin began spraying his trees to ward off pine beetles, he has lost just two of about 20 trees at his home in Vail. That’s not a bad ratio in an area where about 80 percent of lodgepoles have died, according to Green.

Chemical sprays are about the only line of defense for homeowners who want to spare their trees, forest experts say.

To understand how spraying works, first a little pine beetle biology 101. Beetle larvae hatch and spend the winter under the bark of the tree, where they are protected from the cold. Feeding on the tree, they turn into adults and in the summer emerge to seek new, healthy trees to attack.

Near the end of their yearlong lifecycle, they breed and lay about 75 eggs in the new tree. Fungi spores on the bodies of adult beetles hasten the death of the host tree by inhibiting its ability to take in nutrients and water.

In order for spraying to be effective, trees must be treated shortly before the beetles fly in search of new victims each summer. The trunk of the tree must be saturated as high up as possible, and the chemical used must be properly mixed, says Dessa Thompson, co-owner of Summit County-based Sempervirens Tree Care.

Depending on the contractor and number of trees sprayed, the annual treatments cost about $10 to $20 per tree.

But, like putting on bug spray after a mosquito has bitten you, tree spraying only works as prevention, and not a cure.

“Once a tree is infected, there’s nothing that can be done,” says Eric Lovgren, Eagle County wildfire mitigation manager. “You can have a green tree on your property that’s dead and doesn’t know it yet.”

Though larger trees ” with trunks six or more inches in diameter at chest height ” are most likely to fall victim to the beetles, epidemics of the magnitude Colorado is experiencing aren’t limited to the big trees.

“They’re starting to spill over into the smaller trees,” says Green, who has begun to see trees with four- to six-inch trunks killed by the beetles.

Even under the best circumstances, spraying isn’t a guarantee. Thompson says her company has about a mid-90 percent success rate, but that isn’t always the case. Despite adhering to a Cordillera ordinance that mandates homeowners spray trees with trunk diameters five inches and above, Wilson continues to lose her trees.

“We’ve been doing everything according to the plan, and now this year we have to cut down another 200,” she says. “The spraying hasn’t been that effective.”

Dr. Dan Binkley, director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute and a forest ecology professor at Colorado State University, doesn’t recommend spraying to save an entire stand of trees.

“It’s a viable option for some individual trees that homeowners care a great deal about,” he says.

If spraying is impractical or unsuccessful, homeowners must decide how to deal with lodgepoles once they die.

Some municipalities, like Vail and Cordillera, have made the decision for residents. Both have ordinances requiring homeowners to remove dead trees from their property to eliminate the wildfire and falling danger dead trees pose.

This spring, the town of Vail will be looking for trees that are infected with pine beetles or other life-threatening diseases, then contacting homeowners to set up a timeline to remove them. If the trees aren’t removed by the agreed-upon time, the town can issue a citation requiring the homeowner to appear in municipal court.

Though a previous ordinance for removal of beetle-killed trees did exist, the town lacked the infrastructure to enforce it.

So far, most of the homeowners whose trees have been removed have been very receptive, says Tom Talbot, wildland coordinator for the Vail fire emergency service. Bob Egizi, director of public safety for Cordillera, says the same of most homeowners in his jurisdiction.

“It’s a frustrating problem, but you’ve just got to deal with it,” says David Staat, who has had to remove several trees from his 1 1/3-acre lot in Cordillera. Though Staat and his wife, Nancy Alexander, chose their lot because they liked the trees, they support Cordillera’s efforts to remove the dead ones. Alexander is even on Cordillera’s Healthy Forest Committee, which sends letters to homeowners notifying them which trees need to be removed from their property.

Unincorporated Eagle County could see a hazard-tree law sometime this summer, says Lovgren, who has written a draft of the ordinance. Should the ordinance be approved, it would give residents living outside the county’s towns a yearlong grace period to remove dangerous trees before fines could be levied.

If you think you have beetle-infested trees on your property, the first thing to do is verify it, Lovgren says. The county and several towns will inspect the health of your trees for free and help you devise a plan to get rid of ones that are hazardous.

Tree removal, unlike spraying, is a permanent fix, but it can be expensive ” up to $500 per tree, depending on how difficult it is to remove, Lovgren says.

A cheaper alternative, if a large amount of trees are affected, is to cut down all the trees. Wilson, who estimates she has spent $30,000 battling the pine beetles, is considering clear-cutting her entire seven-acre lot to get rid of the pine beetles once and for all.

Spraying, selective removal of trees and clear-cutting all come with environmental pros and cons.

The chemicals most often used to prevent beetle infestation ” carbaryl, permethrin and bifenthrin ” carry serious consequences if not used properly.

Carbaryl (brand names include Sevin, Slam and Adios) is highly toxic to honeybees and other beneficial insects, as well as some fish, shrimp and aquatic insects. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers it likely to cause cancer in humans. Permethrin (brand names Astro and Dragnet), which Cordillera uses, and bifenthrin (Onyx) are also highly toxic to fish and bees. Their potential health effects in humans are unknown.

“There is a risk based with any use of a pesticide,” says Sandra McDonald, environmental and pesticide education specialist at Colorado State University.

But, if the chemicals are applied and disposed of correctly by a licensed and trained applicator, those risks are greatly reduced, she says, and she endorses their use for pine beetle prevention.

Removing trees must also be done properly to avoid erosion and runoff problems, says Dr. Lee MacDonald, a watershed science professor at Colorado State. Bare, exposed soil or soil that is packed down by heavy machinery is more likely to shed water instead of absorb it, which can harm the forest.

“You want to maintain that natural infiltration rate,” MacDonald says.

He recommends limiting soil compaction as much as possible and leaving needles and small branches on the ground after removing trees to prevent too much soil from being exposed. When looking for a tree-removal company, he suggests talking to previous customers and asking to see for yourself the work they’ve done. Sempervirens, for example, removes trees during the winter, when snowpack protects soil from compaction to an extent. For a higher cost, the company will use horses ” less destructive than big machinery ” to haul the trees out.

Clear-cutting, though it conjures images of slash-and-burned rainforests, can be another way to prevent soil from being packed too tightly. Entering a forest to remove trees year after year ” instead of all at once ” can damage soil and put smaller trees at risk, MacDonald says.

“Aesthetically, people don’t like clear-cutting,” he says. “Clear-cutting is not necessarily a big evil thing. It all depends on how things are done.”

Clear-cutting can mimic fire, a natural process for lodgepole stands, says Green of White River National Forest. Lodgepoles historically have depended on fire to clear stands and release the seeds within their pinecones; similarly, clear-cutting opens the forest and allows heat from the sun to open cones and release seeds. So, under the right circumstances, clear-cutting is acceptable, Green says.

“Clear-cutting is just a management tool to mimic Mother Nature’s processes,” he says.

Nancy Alexander knows she doesn’t have a choice when it comes to removing her beetle-killed trees. But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch her mighty lodgepoles dragged away by chains that sometimes take smaller trees with them.

“When they come in and take down the tree, it’s sad,” she says. “I think everyone is sad to see the sudden change that was not anticipated.”

Yet signs of the new generation have already appeared around her home. Some Douglas firs have sprouted, soaking up some of the sun and water previously gobbled by the lodgepoles. They give Alexander hope that the forest around her home will recover during her lifetime.

“It’s actually probably healthier than it was before,” her husband says.

Diversifying the forest with firs, spruce, aspen and younger lodgepoles is one way homeowners can help prevent a similar epidemic in the future, forest experts say.

“Maybe it’s just time to cut all those trees and plant new ones,” Lovgren says.

And while those new young trees are growing, perhaps it’s best homeowners take a cue from Ann Wilson, who has lost hundreds of lodgepoles but still keeps things in perspective.

“It’s annoying, but what are you going to do?” she says. “One thing is, it’s improving our view.”

Sarah L. Stewart can be reached for comment at (970) 748-2982 or sstewart@vailtrail.com.


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