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Threats to forest are changing, persistent

Public land managers have been working for years to create forests with different types of vegetation. Here, open areas and aspens are interspersed among lodgepole pines. That means if a major wildfire should erupt, there's a lower likelihood of a devastating "crown fire" that runs in the treetops.
Anthony Thornton | athornton@vaildaily.com |

VAIL — The view of the mountains on either side of Interstate 70 through Vail has changed from just a few years ago. That view has changed for the better — and it’s safer, too.

Vail Town Council members Margaret Rogers and Dale Bugby on Tuesday got a quick tour of the forest from town up Red Sandstone Road, a popular U.S. Forest Service road that leads to Piney Lake. Leading the tour were Vail Fire Chief Mark Miller, Paul Cada, the fire department’s new wildland fire supervisor, and Dave Neely, district ranger for the Forest Service’s Holy Cross and Eagle ranger districts.

Rogers had requested the tour a few weeks ago, wondering about the potential for a wildfire on forest land north of town creeping over the hillside and into town.

The Tuesday tour, which didn’t take much of a drive to find fresh snow among the evergreens and aspen, gave Neely and Cada a chance to talk about the state of the forest, as well as the state of efforts to take dead trees out of areas where they could do the most damage in the event of the wildfire. Here are four things learned on the morning drive.

Town trees are hurting

Cada is relatively new to the town’s payroll but has years of experience working with the Colorado Forest Service in Summit County. He said one of his long-term projects is taking an inventory of all the trees in town, an effort that will identify which trees are healthy, diseased or dying.

While the pine beetle started transforming the look of area forests several years ago, the biggest threat to trees in town today seems to be pine and spruce scale, tiny insects that attack evergreen needles. Many of the town’s aspen trees are also diseased.

“We didn’t know how prevalent the spruce scale is in town,” Miller said.

It’s hard to determine what caused the outbreak, but one theory is that spraying for beetles may have killed other insects that feed on the scale insects.

Years of work

Driving up in the forest, Neely pointed out areas where a combination of logging and dead-tree removal has helped create a more healthy forest. Acknowledging that Neely said work has been concentrated around populated areas, the so-called wildland/urban interface. Crews have worked locally to clear fallen trees from areas where they might contribute to bigger fires.

Neely said a lot of work has been done around forest roads. Clearing and picking up dead trees can help those roads work as fire breaks if a wildfire does strike.

Rogers questioned that strategy, citing a wildfire around Glenwood Springs early in the 2000s that at one point jumped the Colorado River, railroad tracks and I-70. That fire, though, was driven by gale-force winds. Neely said roads can work decently to stop or slow fires.

Crews have helped clear about 40 miles of roads in the area, Neely said.

Dead trees aren’t all bad

While removing dead trees can be helpful, Neely said a healthy forest needs dead trees for everything from wildlife habitat to returning nutrients to the soil.

“We’re not trying to deal with every dead tree,” Neely said.

On the other hand, the threats to trees are persistent and widespread. Neely said the pine beetle epidemic peaked in 2008 or 2009. But since then, the prevalence of scale has increased. There are also beetles attacking spruce, fir and other tree species.

Different fuels Equals smaller fires

One of the primary goals of public land managers these days is to encourage the growth of different kinds of fuels in a forest. A fire spreading along the tops of an unbroken forest of lodgepole pine — called a “crown fire” — could be especially devastating. That type of fire decades ago near Trappers Lake in the Flat Tops actually sterilized the soil in a vast area.

Neely pointed out breaks in the evergreens, whether meadows, aspen groves or areas where younger trees are growing. Those areas would be less prone to crown fires — or, at least, those fires wouldn’t run across thousands of acres.

And, while the Forest Service spent nearly 100 years fighting every fire it could spot, modern management allows small fires to burn in areas where they can help the forest regenerate.

All of this takes time.

“We won’t see the results from a lot of this (work) in my lifetime,” he said.

After the tour, Rogers said she was impressed with what she’d seen. And, she said, she felt better about the town’s safety.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.


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