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Ride on the pine beetle time machine

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyCampers Taylor Brooks, right, and his mother, Shelley, spend time at their campsite on Shadow Mountain Reservoir Thursday in Grand County.
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GRAND COUNTY ” A trip to Grand County is like an eerie, five-year glimpse into Vail’s future forests.

Taking the roads past Wolcott, State Bridge then Kremmling, you’re likely to pass a dozen logging trucks filled with wood. As you pass into Grand County, you’ll start seeing red forests in the distance, peaking out over the hills.

The trees don’t seem so bad, or at least no worse than Vail’s trees, until you drive through Granby, circle the lake, walk the dam at Shadow Mountain Reservoir and travel south to the Williams Fork area.



This is where Grand County should be renamed “Brown County,” said Staniel Juranek, 79, who’s been selling produce with his wife near Lake Granby for 15 years.

The mountain pine beetle, which is expected to destroy up to 90 percent of the lodgepole pine forests in Eagle County, has definitely done its damage here.



It’s easy to spot clear-cut and logged areas on the hillsides. Within three to five years of dying, a lodgepole pine is so deteriorated and dry that it can’t be sold as commercial lumber ” and you can see much of this useless wood left behind.

Many homes, surrounded by the skeletal remains of long-dead pine trees, look like the sole, untouched survivors of cataclysmic fires. Grand Lake resident Bob Means says that even after spraying all the trees around his house, they still had to cut several down.

“It’s just something you accept,” he said. “It’s nature’s way.”



The dominant colors are red and brown. Acre for acre, you won’t see this many dead, red and brown trees in Eagle County, at least not yet.

It was around 2000 when foresters in Grand County recognized the pine beetle outbreak as a true epidemic, rather than one of the small outbreaks common in any pine forest, said Craig Magwire, head of the Sulphur Ranger District. They knew then, as they know now, it can’t be stopped.

While its quite easy to find areas in Eagle County that match visually the destruction seen in Grand County, it’s hard to find the beetle as widespread. Depending on where you look, Grand County is about three to five years ahead of Vail when it comes to beetles, Magwire said.

“That’s why when you see a green tree in a Grand County neighborhood, it’s because someone sprayed it. Otherwise, it would already be dead,” Magwire said. “In Eagle County, the beetle just may not have progressed that far.”

Residents and tourists in Grand County seem overwhelmed by what what’s happened the past seven years. But reluctantly, and with a bit of sadness or anger, they’ve gone through that classic grieving cycle and have come to accept their dead forest.

When Jeff Davidson shrugs and says “What are you going to do?” while launching his boat into Shadow Mountain Reservoir Thursday, he’s far from alone in that attitude. It may not be pretty in Grand County, but it’s not scaring him away.

Lillie and Buddy Shapp, managers of Sulphur Ranger District campgrounds, both said they’re full on the weekends just like they’ve always been during the summer.

People from the Denver area drive in knowing very well what the trees look like. Many of these families have been coming for years, and they’re not about to stop now.

“Bring shade, we tell them,” Lillie Shapp said.

The Brooks family hadn’t been through Granby in about five years and was a bit shocked when they pitched their tents at the now ironically named Green Ridge campground, a spot now surrounded by red and brown trees.

“It’s night and day to what it used to be,” Shelly Brooks said. “It’s sad.”

The water though is always beautiful, and the campgrounds are always quiet, Gary Brooks said. There are still plenty of trees in the woods and the mountains are immovable. Next time they camp, he doubts they’ll go anywhere else.

“It’s kind of pretty, all the red and green,” he said.

The Brooks family illustrates that, despite how bad things look, the recreation industry hasn’t slowed down yet.

The pine beetle’s effect on the community has been mostly emotional rather than life changing.

“You come down here to escape heat of Denver, camp by a body of water, go fishing, get out with their family, fresh air “they still have all those things,” Magwire said. “There hasn’t been a drop off in visitation because people still get to do the things they want to experience.”

That’s why there’s been a strong push to clear and spray trees in recreation areas and campsites.

The most the forest service can do now is shield those priceless areas from the inevitable wildfires that will clear out all the dead trees and trigger the regrowing process.

Magwire can’t see any reason why the pine beetle won’t be just as bad in Eagle County. It will be tough for people to watch, but Eagle County will do fine, he says.

“We’re both dominated by recreation economies, a lot of real estate and people coming to play and recreate,” Magwire said. “They won’t stop visiting Vail either.”

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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