Pine beetles threaten ‘forgotten forest’ |

Pine beetles threaten ‘forgotten forest’

The deep shade of green that usually marks the Engelmann spruce forests in this neck of the San Juan Mountains is steadily loosing its luster.

As spruce beetles munch their way through the roughly 20,000 acres south of this tourist town, the forest is turning shades of purple and gray before finally dropping its needles altogether.

While the bugs have been putting dents in pockets of the forest for the entire decade, their calling card is not as flashy as the forest of orange skeletons left by the mountain pine beetle along the Interstate 70 corridor.

Mike Blakeman, a public affairs officer with the Rio Grande National Forest, said the Rio Grande is the “forgotten forest,” among the others with bug woes, in part because of its isolation.

While there may be fewer people to see the change than in the north central part of the state, the spread of the beetle will likely leave a large mark on the 1.8 million-acre national forest. Spruce-fir habitat makes up nearly 40 percent of the forest. “The landscape is going to change,” Blakeman said. “We’re seeing a very large-scale disturbance in a short period of time.”

The results of that change may mean greater forage space for deer and elk, and it may also mean increases in the water table and surface flows, Blakeman said.

On the other hand, spruce beetle infestation may thin the cover needed by the snowshoe hare, which is the main food source for the endangered Canada lynx that roams through much of the Rio Grande. But there is not a lot the Forest Service can do to stop the spread of the bug because it doesn’t have the funding to treat the large amounts of acreage likely to be infested, said Kirby Self, a forestry supervisor on the Rio Grande.

Moreover, in some spots, such as congressionally designated wilderness areas like the Weminuche and South San Juan, the agency is prohibited by law from going in.

In other areas, however, the agency can conduct timber harvest to remove dead or dying trees.

In two areas ” Fern Creek and Love Lake southwest of Creede ” foresters are planning a timber harvest called the Big Moose Vegetation Restoration Project to take out the larger infested trees across 4,500 acres.

Paul Hancock, a forester trainee with the Rio Grande, said the area is suited for the project because it has an existing road network.

While planners do not expect to begin an environmental impact statement on the project until late this year or early next year, the size of the operation would make it one of the largest in the forest’s recent history.

The County Line timber project in Conejos County was mired in the courts before finally getting under way in recent years.

“This project is three times as big as County Line and twice the volume,” Hancock said.

Although loggers may not get on the ground in the project area for another three to four years, Hancock said, the Forest Service estimated the project would yield between 35 million and 55 million board feet.

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