Vail, Beaver Creek take on pine beetle
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Vail Resorts has several projects under way this summer that combat the mountain pine beetle epidemic and help protect the environment. The 16-acre chunk of forest cut down in 2008, just under the Vail gondola, was one of the first in-bounds pine beetle mitigation projects at Vail Mountain, said Don Dressler, snow ranger for the Forest Service’s Holy Cross Ranger District. Fast-forward two years and the ski company is doing a lot to fight the epidemic that has killed millions of lodgepole pine trees throughout Colorado. Vail Mountain plans to remove all dead and infested trees within 100 feet of the Avanti Express and Vista Bahn chair lifts, about 26 acres of land, said Vail Mountain spokeswoman Liz Biebl.Promoting overall forest health is critical for Vail Resorts, said Beaver Creek spokeswoman Jen Brown. A healthy forest provides the spectacular natural settings at the company’s five mountain resorts and also mitigates climate change, ensures clean water and abundant wildlife, Brown said.”We’re committed to forest health at every level of the company,” Brown said. “Vail and Beaver Creek are working with the U.S. Forest Service on a vegetation management plan and long-term strategies to make way for the forest of the next generation.”The plan includes selective removal of dead trees and re-vegetating certain areas with a mix of Colorado blue spruce and douglas fir, she said.
Dressler, who works with Vail Resorts on their mitigation efforts, said efforts like the clear-cut done in 2008 can’t happen everywhere.”We’re trying to look at vegetation resort-wide,” Dressler said. “Where we have a target like a chair lift – if a tree has potential to strike a lift, we need to deal with that right now.”The priority now is to mitigate the hazards. While any dead tree can be considered a hazard, some are more dangerous than others.Hazards are now defined as trees threatening high-use areas and assets, such as chair lifts, restaurants and snowmaking equipment and facilities.The effects noticeable on ski trails are small, Biebl said. Effects on ski trails depend on the makeup of the tree stands along and within those trails, terrain and geographic features, Biebl said. “This is a long-term process with incremental changes of a relatively small scale,” she said. “Most skiers will not notice much of a change.”Looking further ahead, Dressler said the resorts will focus on forest health-type projects, such as looking at stands of trees and figuring out the best ways to rejuvenate those stands. “We’re trying to look at vegetation resort-wide,” Dressler said. “At how we are going to manage trees around the resort.”
Vail Daily: Roughly how many trees will be cut this summer? Jen Brown: We measure in acres, not trees. For Beaver Creek our staff is removing approximately 25 acres on Forest Service and private land and the work is spread across various parts of the mountain. We view every tree in a stand and the treatment depends upon the tree stand makeup (i.e. how many lodgepoles are in a stand versus other species and how many of the trees must be cut).VD: How many trees were cut last year and in previous years? When did the response to beetle kill begin and how has it progressed in recent years? JB: Our response started roughly 20 years ago and will continue for years to come. We’ll be performing selective thinning and removal of infected trees for many years. This is not just a ski resort issue, it’s an issue across the western U.S. (In the 1990s there was a cooperative project with the U.S. Forest Service and town of Vail at top of the Cascade Lift.)Background: The Forest Service estimates that the mountain pine beetle has infested a total of 2.3 million acres in Colorado. First noticed in 1996, the pine beetle spread is triggered by aging forests, warmer winters and extended drought periods – all of which have impacted areas around Colorado for several years. The mountain pine beetle is primarily infesting lodgepole pines older than 30-40 years with a mortality rate of 90 percent and higher.VD: How much the resort is spending on this? We’re not releasing expenditures. VD: When the cutting began and how long it will last? JB: The work started this spring and will last through fall. We have our own equipment and resort staff are cutting and operating the machinery. They undergo extensive safety training and are qualified for this type of work. All work conducted on Forest (Service) lands is overseen and contracted by local Forest (Service) officials.VD: What is the acreage of beetle kill trees at each resort, and how much of that acreage has been cut or is scheduled to be cut ?JB: We are treating approximately 25 acres at Beaver Creek this summer. The cut trees are being re-purposed as timber and firewood. We are currently working with the Forest Service to analyze treatment options resort-wide.VD: How does the beetle kill fight affect ski runs and the layout of the mountain? Which runs might people notice a change? JB: Cutting depends on terrain, tree stands and location. The intent is not to create new ski terrain, it’s to help regenerate our forest and also remove hazard trees and protect resort infrastructure. VD: Are there many trees being planted as a response to beetle kill removal?JB: Vail replanted trees this summer and in the next couple of years there will be similar projects to this one. Lodgepole pine will regenerate naturally, but planting may be used in certain areas to accelerate this process.