Scenery a problem, then fire
EAGLE COUNTY – With a 3-inch blade, Cal Wettstein cut into a lodgepole pine tree, stripping off a chunk of bark. The wood beneath revealed a black speck the size of a grain of rice – a mountain pine beetle. It was already dead, but the beetle left behind a disease capable of bringing down the towering pine. Digging further revealed a tiny, wriggling larvae. Its soft pink body was indistinguishable except for a mouth occupying a third of its body. Together with millions of its comrades, the beetle is wrecking havoc on Eagle County’s forests, causing them to go red, not with the changing seasons, but with death. It’s not our faultWhile humans are often the instigators of such ecological tragedies, this time, our hands are clean, said town of Vail and county officials involved with the problem. “Humans play absolutely no role in the infestation,” said Tom Talbot, fire technician and wildland coordinator for Vail’s fire department.As part of the natural cycle of life for lodgepole pines, mountain pine beetles appear toward the end of a tree’s life to help finish it off. However, years of drought have led to weakened trees that are unable to fight off the infestation.
Instead of attacking a historical average of about 30 percent of lodgepole pines, the beetle is after nearly all of them this year, said Wettstein, the district ranger in Eagle County.Infested trees are identified by “pitch tubes” – holes oozing sap from where the tree tried to push out an invading bug.”It’s pretty much the kiss of death,” Wettstein said. “And there are millions and millions of the little devils here.”Thousands of beetles will feed off a tree to eventually kill it. The beetles deposit blue stain fungus, which cuts off the flow of water and nutrients through the tree, turning the tree a telltale red or brownish rusty color. Beetles usually spend six to seven years killing off old trees and are eventually curbed by cold winters or rebuffed by healthy trees. The current beetle outbreak started in 1998 or 1999, Wettstein said. But lacking cold enough winters, he worries the beetles will run out of trees to eat before they’re forced to leave the area.Would-a, could-a, should-aDriving up Meadow Mountain on a bright, cloudless day, Wettstein stopped suddenly and hopped out of the truck to survey the landscape — aspen trees turning gold marred by dead and dying lodgepole pines in shades of green and red.
“Whenever I see this, I just say, ‘Oh man,'” he said. “Yikes… Even the green ones, they’re probably dead. Man, that’s ugly. This just blows me away. Every time I come out here there are more dead trees.”I always want to say to people, ‘Yeah, we’re on top of it,” but there’s nothing we can do to save them,” Wettstein said. “It’s bad now, and it’s going to be worse next year. It’s just cleanup now. We will deal with what they leave us in the aftermath.”Although officials hear continuous criticism for their lack of foresight, they said starting on the project five or even 10 years ago would have made no difference. Large scale efforts would have had to begin 30 or 40 years ago to mitigate the infestation, but the social and political climate of the day did not permit it, Wettstein said. With a passionate anti-logging climate, foresters were obligated to keep their trees standing, even though it would have been healthier to cut some down, he said.Some smaller patches logged and replanted in the 1970s and ’80s are healthy and resisting the beetle. But there are few of those groves. “People want to see results today, and it’s hard for people to grasp that we need to work now to protect ourselves 20, 50, 150 years from now,” Wettstein said. Down in VailVail officials are trying to speed up the natural cycle that, once the trees are dead, would see fire sweep through the forest, causing pine cones to burst and leveling the forest floor to ready it for new life.
Along with federal and state forest services, Vail is removing dead and infested trees on about 29 acres of land on the upper bench of Donovan Park in West Vail. Men from the Juniper Valley wildfire crew, made up of prison inmates, will cut and pile about 1,000 trees. Some trees will be hauled out of the area while others will be stacked into teepees awaiting snow so Vail firefighters can conduct controlled, small-scale burns. Larger logs will be left in the forest to let nature take its course. Small, controlled fires are meant to prevent larger forest fires and protect the valley’s scenic corridor. “Who wants to come and vacation in the Vail Valley if it’s a bunch of burnt toothpicks?” said Talbot of the Vail fire department.Flames in the futureVail’s efforts are just one in a series of forest-health projects to remove dead and infested trees from around town, but it will likely be the largest.”It’s rewarding to know that there will be new growth here,” Talbot said. “I’m hoping my children will be able to enjoy it.”Around the county, the forest service will continue efforts to prevent or lessen the severity of wildfires, while sustaining the resort-based economy, Wettstein said. “The problem right now is scenery. In a couple of decades it’s fire,” Wettstein said. “In 20 to 40 years, there will be a fire, and we won’t be able to stop it. These will be immense fires in the tens of thousands of acres.”
However, driving down Meadow Mountain, looking over the patchwork quilt of colors on the hillside in the backdrop of the jagged Gore range, Wettstein was optimistic.”It’s a resilient landscape,” he said. “It will take care of itself.”Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Vail, Colorado