What’s natural and what’s not | VailDaily.com

What’s natural and what’s not

Matt ZalaznickDaily Assistant Managing Editor

Why are wildfires and pine beetles such a big deal? The former, because our homes are in the way. The latter, because we think all those dying, rust-colored trees all over our mountains are ugly. Both, however, are normal acts of nature – unlike building a subdivision in a forest. After Hurricane Katrina, some of us were aghast people built their homes in such low-lying areas of New Orleans and the surrounding wetlands. But we’re making the same mistake building deeper and higher into the woods – if it’s not a mistake to live up here at all. In Katrina’s wake, some doubt the wisdom of rebuilding a city as vulnerable as New Orleans. Those same doubters could also wonder at the wisdom of putting firefighters in harm’s way to protect homes in the heart of a Rocky Mountain forest-fire zone; especially when putting out the fires of the past is a major reason the risk of major fire is now growing in the High Country.In a nutshell, as people decided it was a good idea early last century to start building more than cabins in the wilderness, they called on firefighters to put out the naturally occurring flames that threatened to wipe out their idyllic new towns.This prevented the flames from burning the old dead trees and brush that were supposed to burn and make way for new, heartier vegetation. But the old trees were left standing – even more likely burn and more vulnerable to the cyclical infestations of pine beetles, which makes the trees even more likely to burn. The result is mountain communities surrounded by forests that are dying dangerously because of our battles to save our intruding homes from Mother Nature. So why do we keep building more and more homes in the woods? Why are we moving farther into the danger zone? Observing the rusty brown ravages of pine beetles, Cal Wettstein, the top federal forestry official in Eagle County, said the first problem will be degraded scenery. That’s a drag, but it’s unlikely to kill anyone or destroy any homes. The next problem will be fire – a potentially massive wildfire, which, Wettstein said, “we won’t be able to stop.””These will be immense fires in the tens of thousands of acres,” he warned. Imagine what a scorched landscape of miles of black, twisted twigs will do for Vail’s summer marketing programs. But it seems nobody’s listening to Wettstein and other foresters and firefighters who have been sounding the alarm. Over south of Minturn, folks seem ready to let a developer put another Cordillera smack dab in the middle of wilderness. The Florida-based Ginn Company is aiming for over a thousand homes, a ski hill and a golf course at the pine-beetled-plagued wilderness between Minturn and Red Cliff. The Town Council may act tough with Ginn for a little while, but this yet-to-be-named resort’s very likely to get built. The company owns the land and has a right to do what it pleases with its property, but if Wettstein’s massive fire comes sweeping down Battle Mountain, or Bellyache, or a host of other neighborhoods built in the wildland, will the rest of us look on in shock as the homes burns? Or will we blame the real culprit – not the bolt of lightning the came blasting out of the sky, but ourselves for not being smarter about how we invade the wilderness. Vail, Colorado

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