Vail’s ‘urban forest’ needs some help
VAIL — Trees fall in forests all of the time. It’s no big deal. Problems come when trees fall along recreation paths, into creeks or onto building roofs.
Living in a town full of trees is one of Vail’s primary calling cards. But, such as other forests in Colorado, Vail’s trees have faced a sustained assault from insects over the past decade or so. That assault hasn’t hit the forests in and around Vail nearly as hard as other areas of the state — Grand Lake may be the most extreme example of damage. But damage from a trio of insects — the pine beetle, the pine needle scale and now the spruce beetle — has left a lot of dead and dying trees in one of Vail’s most-used areas, along Gore Creek.
What to do about those dead and dying trees is a problem town officials have been working on for a couple of years now. The solutions are pretty complicated, and quite expensive. That means the Vail Town Council will have to approve a plan — and a budget — for the work. That will happen fairly soon. When a plan is approved, work could take as few as two years and as many as five.
Gregg Barrie, the town’s senior landscape architect, is recommending a three-year plan. That plan involves a combination of removing dead trees, saving trees and a bare minimum of chemical spraying.
Removing dead trees along Gore Creek is going to be complicated in some cases. The work might require cutting down a dead tree, then hauling it across Gore Creek to be hauled off and ground up for compost.
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“It’s not the same thing as taking down a tree next to your driveway,” Barrie said.
What to take, what to leave
On the other hand, dead trees are an important part of nature, providing compost for new growth and shelter for birds and wildlife. But allowing trees to simply fall could result in new hazards for people on recreation paths or people kayaking the creek. The trick will be deciding what trees to haul away and which to take down and leave where they won’t be a danger to anyone, or anything.
Another part of the plan involves keeping spruce beetles — the trees’ current insect assailants — out of healthy trees. Taking out dead trees removes some of the breeding grounds for those insects.
Some healthy trees may be treated with pheromone packets that essentially tell beetles a tree is already full.
Spraying insecticides, the first step in battling insect infestations, is now a last resort, especially as officials work to improve the water quality in Gore Creek.
Barrie said in simply the first year of what’s called an integrated pest management program, the town cut its insecticide spraying by 75 percent.
Town officials hope private property owners along the creek seek out advice to protect their trees. While most of the property between Ford Park and Donovan Park is town property, the streamside property east and west of those parks is in private hands.
As dead trees are removed and healthy trees are protected, town officials are also working to address one of the biggest problems in forests throughout the U.S. — vast stands of trees that are all about the same age.
For almost a century after the U.S. Forest Service was founded, that agency pursued a policy of putting out every fire it could. That turned out to be a bad idea. Forests with trees about the same age are more susceptible to disease and fire.
‘Urban forest’ diversity
Part of the town’s tree management plan includes finding ways to create some age diversity in Vail’s “urban forest.”
To do that, the plan calls for re-planting trees along the stream tract. Along with the remaining old trees, that could, in time, create a more healthy streamside environment.
Those new trees won’t be out-of-towners, either. Barrie said the plan calls for collecting seed cones from streamside trees, sprouting them elsewhere, then returning them to Vail for planting.
Those sprouts, in theory, will be genetically adapted to this habitat.
While the tree removal will take only a few years, restoring the town’s streamside forests will take generations.
Paul Cada of the Vail Fire Department used to work for the Colorado State Forest Service. Cada said people in town over the next 20, 50 or 100 years need to maintain, or improve, the town’s current dedication to the health of the area in and around Gore Creek.
“It requires a different level of management,” Cada said. “We’ve seen the pendulum swing over the decades from using the forest as a resource to leaving it alone and not touching it.”
The town’s advantage, at this point, is while there’s plenty of work to do, there’s also plenty to save.