Survey: Beetle kill increased 50 percent statewide last year |

Survey: Beetle kill increased 50 percent statewide last year

Allen Best
Special to the Sky-Hi Daily News

LAKEWOOD ” Aerial surveys of forested areas are, by their very nature, broad-brush affairs. Flying 1,000 to 3,000 above the ground, crews monitor the forests below, looking for evidence of trees hit by bark beetles while flying at speeds of 115 mph.

Still, the swathes of dead and dying trees evidenced in aerial surveys last summer ” the 11th year of the beetle epidemic in northern Colorado ” were broad and bold.

On top of an existing 1 million acres, state and federal officials said yesterday at a conference in this Denver suburb, another 500,000 acres were discovered.

If dramatic, the results were not surprising, they said.

However, given the current intensity of spread, they expect all large-diameter lodgepole pines, which dominate lower elevations of the Western Slope, will be killed within the next three to five years.

Rick Cables, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service, said the increase in affected forests was unprecedented for any one year.

“We now have more than 1.5 million acres between northern Colorado and southern Wyoming,” he said.

In some areas, the damage is complete. Ground-zero for the epidemic is Grand County, where the surveys found no additional spread of bark beetles in the Williams Fork and Troublesome valleys.

But whereas in the past, bark beetle activity was mostly confined to Grand and four other counties, this year significant damage was found in peripheral areas, including Clear Creek, Gilpin, Boulder and Larimer counties, all located east of the Continental Divide.

Boulder and Larimer had a 1,500 percent increase in forested acres affected by bark beetles, according to the survey.

The spread was also detected in two counties in the Arkansas River drainage, Lake and Chaffee. The spread in the higher elevations above Leadville, which itself is 10,000 feet, was particularly significant said Susan Gray, a group leader in forest health management program.

Foresters also think that beetle epidemics affecting higher-elevation spruce trees could occur in southwest Colorado, but with pockets in the White River National Forest along the Interstate 70 corridor. Spruce beetles ” similar to mountain pine beetles, but more specifically adapted to spruce trees ” sometimes proliferate in forests where trees are blown over by high winds. A number of such wind-blow areas around Colorado are now being monitored.

The causes of the mountain pine beetle epidemic are complex. The beetles are always found in forests, with populations flaring periodically.

Epidemics are checked by extreme and sustained cold weather or, alternatively, by unusual cold in fall or spring. None of this cold has occurred in recent years, at least nothing sufficient to kill bark beetles in appreciable quantities.

But the flip side of that coin is that the forests in Colorado ” and much of the West ” are of an age that they are most vulnerable to insects and diseases. Cables, of the Forest Service, likened it to a community of people in their 70s and 80s.

“If you look at the lodgepole pine, it’s all the same age,” he said. “It’s all old, and it’s ready to regenerate. The mountain pine beetles are the agents of regeneration.”

What the Forest Service ” both the federal agency and its parallel in Colorado state government ” hopes to engineer is a diversity of age classes in the forests, “so that no one insect or pathogen can destroy the entire forest all at once,” added Cables. “Our goal is to create more resilient forests.”

Cables said many of the lodgepole pine forests, “if we’re lucky,” will regenerate naturally.

“When a stand is 30 years old, we may want to create fire,” he said. That, he said, would allow aspen trees to then sprout.

Less clear is how other, higher elevation species will regenerate, he said. He also said that the changing climate makes it somewhat unclear how forests may grow in the future.

Cables credited new partnerships with the private sector in providing a market for dead wood. Potentially three biomass mills, which would turn the old lodges into pellets, are being planned, two in Kremmling and one in Walden. The Forest Service, he added, is hoping for more such “partnerships.”

As well, he cited the YMCA of the Rockies-Snow Mountain Ranch between Granby and Tabernash as an example of a place where preventative action worked effectively. For several years trees had been thinned and firebreaks created. Included was a 150- to 200-foot firebreak around buildings that had previously been nestled in thick timber.

The work paid off late last June when a small fire threatened to become big.

“I am here to tell you that the fire went as far as it could,” but no farther, he said. The preventative worked saved more than 100 homes in adjacent area.

“This is a success story,” he said, while lauding Julie Watkins, center director of the YMCA property.

Several new laws and appropriations also bear on the issue. The Colorado Legislature last year appropriated $1 million per year for the next five years for community-based reforestation projects. So far, that funding has been tapped for 12 programs in the state and has leveraged another $2.5 million, including a fuels-reductions program in the Grand Lake area, plus two programs in Summit County and one at Vail.

As well, legislators passed a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park. That bill allows creation of forest improvement districts, which would have taxiing authority.

However, counties in northwest Colorado chose not to seek voter approval to create such a district.

“Timing is everything, and basically our elected officials have said now is not the time,” said Gary Severson, executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

One reason for the hesitation, he explained, is that property taxes collected for school districts shot up as a result of action taken by Gov. Bill Ritter.

However, forestry officials are cranky about the national energy bill adopted by Congress last fall. That law excludes incentives for wood from national forests processed at biomass plants.

“Very frustrating,” said Jeff Jahnke, director of the Colorado State Forest Service.

Cables said the forest-planning process gives the Forest Service the necessary tools for making wood available to biomass and other processes. But the real question, in the long term, he added, is whether the public will continue support logging once the current epidemic has abated.

“I can remember 10 years ago in Colorado we had a hard time having a summit on forest health,” he said.

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