What will Vail do with dead creekside trees? | VailDaily.com

What will Vail do with dead creekside trees?

Evidence of Spruce Beetle damage on a blue spruce tree, Tuesday, in Vail. Spruce beetles prefer large — 16-inches in diameter or greater — mature and ove mature spruce trees in slow-growing, spruce-dominated stands.

VAIL — When lifelong Vail resident Kim Langmaid was a child, Gore Creek didn't have as many big streamside trees as it does today. There are hundreds of those big trees today, and many are threatened, sick or dead. What to do with those trees is something being pondered by Langmaid and the rest of the Vail Town Council.

Big trees are part of the charm of Gore Creek through the town's core. More important, big trees, living or dead, provide shade for the creek, cooling the water, something fish and insects like. Big trees also provide habitat for songbirds and other wildlife.

But big trees can be hazardous. Dead trees can be a hazard for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists when they fall. Dead trees that fall into the creek can create hazards for boaters on the creek. Sick and dead trees can also harbor bugs that infect adjacent trees.

Forests in the Colorado Rockies have been beset by insect infestations for about the past decade.

“We’re realizing that we’re not keeping up with the number of new dead trees. Our objective is to intensify our activity.”Paul CadaVail Fire Department’s wildland fire specialists

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Paul Cada, the Vail Fire Department's wildland fire specialists, said the insect problems started with the pine needle scale, a tiny bug that leaves white marks on trees. The scale beetles — along with other environmental factors — have weakened trees, making them more vulnerable to both pine beetles and, more recently, spruce beetles.

A pine beetle infestation across northwest Colorado has killed trees encompassing hundreds of thousands of acres. That infestation has largely passed, but spruce beetles have started to rise, including along Gore Creek.

Vail is surrounded by U.S. Forest Service property and all its trees and bugs. Problems that affect those trees inevitably make their way to the valley floor. The valley floor is far more noticeable, of course.

The life cycle of insects and trees "has been a challenge since humans started living in the woods," Mayville said.

In Vail, the problem is becoming more obvious every season.

"We're realizing that we're not keeping up with the number of new dead trees," Cada said. "Our objective is to intensify our activity."

Throughout the past couple of years, town officials have already removed a number of trees along the creek.

Fewer trees and stream health

But, Cada said, that opens up the stream to more sunlight, which can degrade the stream's health. While dead trees are being cut down, Cada said the trees' stumps and roots remain in place, which helps stabilize the stream banks.

Cada said there haven't been any revegetation efforts in the areas where trees have been removed. But, he added, areas next to the banks of a creek generally revegetate themselves pretty quickly.

"In the areas we worked a couple of years ago, the willows and other vegetation came back strong," Cada said.

Langmaid, the founder of the Walking Mountains Science Center, brings both personal history and her educational and professional background to the tree discussion.

Langmaid said she'd like to see town officials take an "adaptive management" approach to deal the trees along the creek. What that means is taking relatively small steps and using knowledge gained as a project continues.

What that doesn't mean is going in and simply clear-cutting a clump of diseased trees. Along Gore Creek, that would be impractical, expensive, and would harm the ecosystem in and near the creek.

Langmaid said she favors an approach that takes out sick and dead trees that pose the greatest risk to both the creek and humans near the water.

"What we want is diversity — different trees species of different ages," Langmaid said. "We want to create a diverse ecosystem."

Planning the project

The ultimate project is still being discussed, and will be over the next few months. Staff will work on the plan, and the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission will give its approval to the final document.

The project will be more expensive, too. Town staff has recommended that the town council increase the $65,000 tree maintenance budget for 2016 by another $25,000 next year.

That isn't a lot of money in the broad picture of Vail finance. But, Langmaid said, relatively small expenditures can add up quickly.

"We need to be somewhat meticulous in our approach," she said. But, if the work proceeds as expected, Langmaid said she's hopeful most of the big tree removal for 2017 can be done before migratory songbirds return for the summer.

That will help both people and wildlife.

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

By the numbers:

75: Dead trees removed from the banks of Gore Creek in Vail since 2014.

162: Dead trees identified in 2015 between Ford Park and Donovan Park.

$65,000: Vail tree maintenance budget for 2016.

$90,000: Requested budget for 2017.

Source: town of Vail.