Pine-beetle battle moves toward Minturn |

Pine-beetle battle moves toward Minturn

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
The U.S. Forest Service will close Tigiwon Road near Minturn Aug. 17 — 19 for maintenance work.

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Beetle-infested pine trees are too decrepit to use as lumber by the time they hit the ground.

Cut them down while they’re still standing, and they have a little money in them.

After seeing pine beetles quickly wipe out the forests in Grand County and Summit County, local foresters want to speed it up when it comes to clearing out what they can of the dead and dying trees in order to recover some of the costs of growing a new forest.

The U.S. Forest Service recently approved a new pine beetle plan called the Upper Eagle River Beetle Salvage Project. It’s focus will be to sell still usable wood, keep the dead, highly flammable wood off the ground and start growing a new forest.

“We’re trying to give a jump-start to rejuvenating the forest as well as reduce wild fire risk,” said Cal Wettstein, resources and planning staff officer for the White River National Forest.

The project will involve salvaging about 1,763 acres of lodgepole pines near the Upper Eagle River. This includes an area around Indian Creek north of Vail, and the West Grouse, Tigiwon and Yoder areas south of Minturn along Highway 24.

Most of the trees in these areas are already dead and dying. Within three to five years of dying, a lodgepole pine is so deteriorated and dry that it can’t be sold as commercial lumber.

It’s a lost opportunity that can be seen in the fields of dead, useless trees turned down by loggers in the Williams Fork area, said Jan Burke, a tree expert with the Forest Service. Clearing out that dead wood then becomes much more expensive, because it’s of no use to anyone.

“The most economical way to get the dead trees out is to get them on the back of a log truck,” Burke said.

So, what happens if you leave those dead trees there? Expect more intense forest fires. The dead pines, filled with sticky, combustible pitch, make great fuel for wildfires.

Clearing these trees won’t eliminate forest fires, but it will help protect important water ways, roads, and make it easier to fight the fires, Burke said.

“If we don’t do anything, we’ll have a lot of trees on the ground, and if it catches on fire, it will be a very intense fire and very difficult to control,” Burke said.

Clearing these trees will also make growing a new forest much easier.

When dead trees are covering the forest floor, blocking sunlight, it makes it more difficult for new ones to start growing, Wettstein said.

The logging equipment itself, which stirs up the dirt and clears the ground, will actually help the new forest grow more quickly, Wettstein said.

This is one reason the project will require extensive “clear cutting,” which, like it sounds, means cutting down all the trees in an area, including still healthy ones, leaving large pockets of open space in the treated areas of the forest.

This aggressive type of cutting has often been a tough sell to some of your average, tree-loving citizens. But if you only cut down small numbers of trees, or just the infected trees, most of the others will likely be blown down by wind, or become infected later, Wettstein said.

Like it or not, most of these trees will someday be on the ground, he said.

With this project only clearing out a small fraction of the White River National Forest, and with foresters saying that a large scale wildfire is inevitable, will all this work really help much in case of the big fire? Why not let nature take care of itself?

The proposed areas for treatment areas aren’t in people’s back yards ” like in the Vail forest health project ” but the Grouse Lake area is in fact closely behind Minturn, and all the proposed areas are parts of important watersheds, which can be damaged by intense fires.

Much of the work will be done in places like Tigiwon Road, which is the main road to popular hikes like Mount of the Holy Cross, but is becoming increasingly more dangerous with ready-to-fall trees lining the road.

“They are going to start falling down eventually, and we’re going to have a real mess on roads, trails and campgrounds,” Wettstein said.

Work for the recently approved Upper Eagle River Beetle Salvage Project will likely begin in 2009, and could take up to five years to finish.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or

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