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Article Last Updated: 9/13/2005 02:01 AM
Tiny beetles killing millions of pines
Mountain residents nervously watch their landscape change as an
infestation of historic proportions thins forests and raises the specter
By Jack Cox
Denver Post Staff Writer
Grand Lake - In a mountain subdivision once so wooded most homeowners
couldn't see their neighbors, Ed Peterson steps away from a 50-foot
lodgepole pine he has just toppled and turns off his chain saw.
"Welcome to 'Stumpville,"' he says.
Around Peterson's log-style home and hundreds of others in this rustic
gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, the land is dotted with the
squat reminders of thousands of trees lost to a massive pine beetle
"It's unbelievable. You can almost hear them eating," says Peterson, who
has cut more than 250 lodgepoles on his 5-acre property in a mostly
futile attempt to keep the bugs at bay.
"We're fighting a big battle, but we're losing," the 65-year-old retiree
laments. "I think every mature tree around is going to die, and it
really hurts, because we're not going to see any of these big guys again
in our lifetime."
The scourge, more wide-ranging than similar epidemics in Colorado in the
1970s and '80s, has killed millions of 100-year- old trees in the
northern part of the state, turning whole mountainsides into
jaw-dropping expanses of orange or maroon.
"My wife said if you didn't know what it was, you'd think it was
actually kind of pretty - until you realized they're all dead," says
Dave Batura, a retired state patrolman and longtime Grand County resident.
Besides creating a blight that could keep tourists and recreationists
away, the enormous stands of dead and dying timber raise the specter of
wildfires, whichcould wipe out homes and businesses and cause erosion
threatening the watersheds supplying much of Denver's drinking water.
"If we don't do something, it will burn, and in the Williams Fork
drainage, that could be catastrophic," says Granby landowner Charles
Henry, referring to a hard-hit area west of Byers Peak.
"Based on what happened in the Hayman fire (in 2002), we know the flames
could be over the hill and in Winter Park in 3 1/2 hours. ... I don't
know if people will want to look at black trees when they're skiing, or
build a million-dollar home in an area that won't be revegetated for 30
or 40 years."
The beetle kill is most extensive in the Williams Fork, Troublesome and
Grand Lake areas, where aerial surveys show more than 300 square miles
of public and private woodlands have been infested - an area roughly the
size of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Summit, Eagle and Jackson counties also have been attacked, and a large
expanse of orange has been spotted in western Boulder County near
Rollinsville - the first outbreak reported on the Front Range.
Likened by many observers to a forest fire without the smoke, the
outbreak hasn't yet ravaged any ski resorts. But it appears poised to
hit Sol Vista and Winter Park, and it could threaten Keystone,
Breckenridge and Vail as well.
Some communities have begun to take on the look of logging camps as
residents and cutting crews work to clear out affected trees before they
become a fire hazard - and, hopefully, before the burrowing bugs can
spread to more stands.
In Grand Lake, piles of logs, slash and wood chips litter properties
everywhere, from clusters of aging summer cabins and RV parks along U.S.
34 to luxury homes above Shadow Mountain Lake, just south of the town.
The carnage has yet to cast a shadow over the real estate market
"because buyers realize this is nature's way, and there's absolutely
nothing we can do about it," says Suzi Maki, a broker with Re/Max
Resorts of Grand County. But provisions for the removal of dead trees
are being included in new contracts, she says, and homes that would have
been touted last year as "wooded and secluded" are listed this year as
having "stunning views."
The lodgepoles will grow back, foresters say, but it will take decades;
meanwhile, aspen can be expected to sprout in the open areas.
Short of wildfire or the depletion of all host trees, the only thing
that could halt the spread of the beetles would be an extended stretch
of bitter cold - enough to freeze the bugs in their winter homes beneath
the protective insulation of the bark.
Two weeks of minus-30 temperatures every night would do the trick,
research from Canada suggests, but Middle Park hasn't had a cold spell
like that for years.
Foresters say the state's mature lodgepoles have become vulnerable to
beetles because of years of drought, plus crowding brought about by
decades of fire suppression and curtailed logging. But even experts are
surprised by the extent of the current infestation.
"The system of checks and balances is a little out of whack," says
veteran entomologist Dave Leatherman of Fort Collins. "Because of
climate change, whatever the cause of that is, beetles throughout the
West are doing things people have never seen before."
In the last Colorado epidemic, trees thinned to about 12 feet apart were
found to be less susceptible. "But this time, while the thinned areas
are the last to succumb, it seems like everything is succumbing," says
Mike Harvey, a state forester in Granby.
Preventive spraying, which costs about $10 per tree, also is of dubious
value because the beetles apparently are boring into trunks at a level
higher than the 25 to 30 feet the sprays normally reach.
And the pests challenge long- held assumptions that they don't attack
trees smaller than 8 inches in diameter and can't spread much higher
than 10,000 feet. In Utah, says Leatherman, the bugs have been attacking
centuries- old bristlecone pines.
"I told people in Breckenridge a few years ago that they didn't have
anything to worry about," says Harvey. "But these darn things are kind
of rewriting the book on us."
The mountain pine beetles aren't the only insects wreaking havoc in the
forests of Colorado. Huge numbers of ponderosa and piñon pines have been
killed by ips beetles in the south and southwestern parts of the state,
and large stands of spruce are under attack by yet another type in
northwestern Colorado around Steamboat Springs.
But the pine beetle infestation, which has become blazingly apparent
this summer, is raising widespread worry in Grand County, where people's
reactions vary from grief and concern to anger and frustration.
"The thing that bothers me is, what's going to happen to the watershed?"
says rancher Bob Chase, who "darn near cried" when he saw trees turning
red on the spread his grandparents homesteaded in 1899.
In the office of the Colorado State Forest Service, where a wall map
charts the progress of the epidemic over the past six years, Mike Harvey
says people are looking for a swift solution.
"But all the answers are long- term. With the work we are doing now" -
thinning and diversifying the forests to make them more resistant - "the
payoff is 40, 50 or 60 years down the road, and that's kind of hard for
this society to swallow. We like quick fixes," he says.
"The thing we have to remember is that this is a natural process. In
lodgepole, it's normal to have dense stands that grow to maturity, die
off in a beetle kill and then regenerate after a fire, like what
happened in Yellowstone in 1988."
The difference in Colorado, of course, is that over the past 10 or 15
years, many of the stands of lodgepole now in their death throes have
been settled with houses and condominiums.
As Henry sees it, eyeing the ever-growing pile of logs he has hauled out
of the woods on his 40-acre retreat southwest of Granby, "I'd love to
let nature take its course. But considering the tourist economy and our
livelihoods, I don't think we want this forest to burn."
To reduce the most immediate threat, the U.S. Forest Service is mapping
out clear-cuts to create firebreaks between private and public lands on
several thousand acres in the Grand Lake and Fraser areas over the next
few years. In addition, large landowners such as the Grand Lake
municipal golf course and the YMCA's Snow Mountain Ranch near Tabernash
are cutting aggressively in hopes of minimizing the impacts.
Winter Park, which anchors a band of lodgepole that stretches virtually
unbroken for 15 miles along the western flank of the Indian Peaks
Wilderness Area, also is working to mitigate the threat.
The ski area has spent nearly $500,000 to remove deadfall and
undergrowth from the 7,630 acres under its control, and 40 members of
the ski patrol have been trained to identify beetle-killed trees so they
can be targeted even before the snow has melted in the spring.
"We are still hopeful that we can prevent the infestation from
spreading, and we think we have a good chance of saving many of the
trees," says resort spokesman Matt Sugar.
In the town of Winter Park, he adds, similar measures are being financed
through a mill-levy increase approved by voters last year.
Clearing the dead timber from all the areas hit by the beetles would be
a daunting task because of the expense, the terrain and the sheer number
of trees involved, foresters say.
Another serious obstacle to intensive logging is the limited market for
the wood. Much of it is stained blue from a fungus carried by the
beetles and is thus perceived by many buyers as blemished, even though
it's considered structurally sound.
Two mills close to the current infestation, a waferboard plant in
Kremmling and a sawmill in Walden, are no longer open. Except for a few
small post-and- pole operations and cabinet- makers who covet
blue-stained wood, the only volume buyer in Colorado is the
Intermountain Resources mill in Montrose - some 300 miles away.
Henry, a weed-control consultant who heads the nonprofit Grand County
Forest Stewardship Association, suggests the dead trees be viewed not as
timber but as fuel for a wood-burning power plant like units now
operating in Nebraska, California and Minnesota.
A 50-megawatt plant, big enough to meet the electrical needs of 50,000
people, could be built for about $100 million, he estimates, and it
"would provide a viable market for 20 years for all the timber waste in
Grand, Routt and Summit counties."
The idea is one of many being considered in wildfire mitigation discussions.
The full extent of this year's infestation won't be apparent for months,
because trees attacked this summer won't turn orange until next spring.
But the scourge appears to be spreading exponentially, says Chris
Oliver, a timber management technician with the Arapaho-Roosevelt
National Forest in Granby.
"For every red one you see now," he says, "what you figure is there are
5 or 10 green ones that will be red at this time next year."
Staff writer Jack Cox can be reached at 303-820-1785 or email@example.com.