Head: Pine beetles creating more firewood
Last summer’s heavily publicized drought created plenty of fires and fire danger but there’s an equally serious forest fire problem approaching in Eagle and Summit Counties this year that’s being chronicled by a new survey.
A combination of mild weather last winter and the unprecedented drought stressed trees throughout the region, providing a near-perfect environment for mountain pine beetles to proliferate. They’ve been busy, and that’s creating a fire problem.
A survey conducted last fall by the Colorado State Forest Service in Eagle, Summit and Grand Counties, shows the rate at which the blanket of lodgepole pines in Eagle County are being infected has tripled.
The survey was conducted in and along the “red zone,” where dwellings and forests meet, and in areas where landowners have been removing infected trees.
Dead trees increase the danger to nearby dwellings by providing fuel for wildfires. Previous surveys were made nearly forest-wide, so providing an apples-to-apples comparison with previous year statistics is difficult.
Data collected from aerial surveys by the U.S. Forest Service isn’t necessarily matching what on-the-ground surveys are showing, said Mike Harvey district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service.
“You’d think you’d see the same thing,” he said. “It does throw a little confusion into the works.”
But the survey is revealing because it creates a snapshot of a much larger problem affecting public lands across Colorado.
“It’s becoming a big problem,” said Holy Cross District Ranger Cal Wettstein of the U.S. Forest Service. Last year’s report showed 5,500 acres of dead or dying trees in the White River National Forest in Eagle County.
The increase in rate of infection is expected, said Harvey. “In all likelihood it’s tied to the drought,” he said.
The report says the epidemic is speeding up. For every trees showing signs of being infected, three more already are infected, but not showing symptoms.
Foot crews conducted the survey by spacing themselves 30 to 50 feet apart and walking the area looking for signs of pine beetle activity. Infected trees were marked with red paint.
In Eagle County the infection spread ratio for the two previous survey years had been one-to-one and in Summit County, one to two. (ASK ABOUT THIS)
Two summers ago a more widespread state survey extending beyond the red zone estimated beetles had killed 20,000 trees in Eagle County, making it the third most beetle-infested county in the state.
Last fall, the survey crew counted 1,370 infected trees in four locations. Vail Mountain’s red zone area was the most infected of the survey sites with 474 trees. Beaver Creek had 157 and property owned by the town of Vail had 122 trees. Landowners were notified of pine beetle infestation either by a phone call or by a card outlining the problem, left at their property.
The U.S. Forest Service, town of Vail and Vail Resorts have a joint beetle treatment program and have been cutting down infected trees. That’s one of the most effective methods of slowing the beetles, the report states.
One area where beetle-killed trees are evident and in a dangerous location is along the mountainside in Intermountain south of Interstate 70. Dead and dying trees speckle the green hillside rusty red.
It’s a bad location, Wettstein said, because there are many houses surrounded by trees. Should a wildfire start, it won’t know the difference between the wood siding of a duplex and a the wood of a beetle-killed lodgepole.
Pine beetles flourish during warm winters and in unhealthy forests with “over mature” trees, like those found in Eagle County. Their population peaks at 15 to 30 year intervals.
The unhealthy and overmature stands of lodgepole that carpet the mountains in this region require fire to rejuvenate their stands. By one estimate, nearly 70 percent of the trees are of a single age-class. Forests without age diversity in trees are vulnerable to insects, fire and disease. The pine beetle infestation proves it, forest experts said.
One-hundred years of fire suppression have interrupted the natural processes of the fire-dependent ecosystems.
When fires do burn, as they did on more than 500,000 acres of Colorado last summer, and 7 million acres nationwide, they cause larger, hotter and more catastrophic fires, and those fires actually cause too much damage to the ecosystem. Eagle County dodged a major fire last year, but had numerous small fires that were quickly snuffed by firefighters.
“In the natural scheme of things, pine beetles kill some trees, and then you’ll have periodic, low-intensity fires that clean up the beetle-killed trees. It makes for a more healthy forest,” said Wettstein.
Locally, pine beetles could become a very big problem. The Holy Cross and Eagle ranger districts of the White River National forest make up more than 800,000 of the county’s 1.1 million acres. Many of those forested acres consist of lodgepole pines under attack by pine beetles.
The pine beetle epidemic can be stopped or slowed by several natural occurrences: A major fire can remove all the trees; a bitter and prolonged cold snap with temperatures of 20 below zero kills the beetle larva already boring the trees and beetles eating themselves out of house and home, leaving fewer living but far more vigorous trees that are able to resist beetle attacks by producing more insect-resisting pitch.
Managing public lands
How to deal with the fire danger brought by pine beetles is an integral part of an increasingly vigorous policy debate about how to manage public lands that was a topic during last fall’s political campaign season.
Thinning trees by cutting some and leaving others is widely seen as a solution, but it’s problematic both politically and economically. Money earmarked for forest projects tends to be funneled to other areas like education.
The state pine beetle report stated: “The most effective silvicultural method to regenerate lodgepole pines is a clearcut, a patch cut or a shelterwood. These harvesting methods create a mosaic of different size and age classes thereby reducing the number of acres of larger mature trees which are the most vulnerable to beetle attack.”
Environmentalists decry logging because cutting requires logging roads and creates more forest impacts. They also have criticized proponents of logging for trying to use the issue of forest health to gut environmental regulations.
Proponents of thinning and logging, such as Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Glenwood Springs, are quick to claim resistance to logging from environmental groups has slowed agencies trying to return forests to a more healthy state.
Rep. Mark Udall, D-Boulder favors thinning around homes and more controlled burns to help restore forests to health.
The U.S. Forest Service is seeking to streamline its own environmental review to speed tree thinning and to reduce fuels in the red zone and public lands immediately adjacent to homes.
There isn’t just one solution to the issue. Different forest types require differing approaches.
The pine beetle report states that thinning helps trees resist beetle attacks. Regarding an earlier beetle infestation In Grand County, the report states: “Another stand of timber in the Williams Fork area, a site of a heavy infestation, was thinned about 1984. The area withstood MPB (mountain pine beetle) attacks for 16 years while the surrounding forest was devastated … Only until the stand was surrounded by the infestation did beetles finally enter the stand.”
Ponderosa forests such as those found along the Front Range, thrive when low-intensity ground-hugging fires sweep through and kill the smaller trees and brush, leaving park-like meadows studded with large trees. Thinning those forests and periodically burning them with controlled fires will help keep them healthy, forest experts say.
What to do with what’s cut
Making money from forest products is not easy. Thinned trees are often too small in diameter to be used for building materials, so the commercial market for them is small.
Compounding that is the fact that the closest active sawmill to Eagle County is more than 120 miles away in Saratoga, Wyo., so the increased cost of hauling the trees increases the cost of dealing with the problem.
Tom Olden of Pine Marten Logging of Eagle, who specializes in thinning beetled stands of trees, last summer said, “People don’t want to believe a big fire is coming. We’re paying for the logging sins of the past.”
Those sins included clear cutting that destroyed huge tracts of forested lands in the East and Northwest resulting a public backlash. He said more than 90 percent of the lumber used in Colorado is imported.
Olden removed approximately 2,000 trees on 13 acres owned by the town of Vail. It cost approximately $55,000 remove the 20 semi-loads of trees, he said.
But managing public land is not as simple as cutting trees. The town of Vail had to abbreviate the project Olden was working on, fearing the cleared land would become more prone to avalanches that could endanger residents of nearby homes.
But reacting to a beetle infestation is just that. The survey notes that cutting down infected trees will slow the spread of the infection, but not end it because the infestation could continue, fed by bugs from untreated areas.
“In short, owners could be chasing bugs around the property until all of the larger mature trees are dead,” it said.
“We’ve always known we’re not beetle-proofing (by cutting down beetled trees). We’re just reducing the susceptibility for more infection,” said Harvey. “At some point the trees will be regenerated. It’s just a question of whether we do it or Mother Nature does it.”
Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Participants attached protest signs to ski poles and hockey sticks in Vail Saturday at the 2020 Women’s March.