Smuggler trees take flight before the pine beetles do
July 2, 2009
ASPEN – Aspenites were shut out of their Smuggler Mountain stomping grounds Thursday, but treated to the spectacle of huge trees dangling from a cable, pulled aloft by a helicopter as part of an experimental effort to slow the spread of the mountain pine beetle.
Pitkin County and city of Aspen trail rangers closed off access to the mountain from Smuggler Mountain Road and various trails until late afternoon, while the felled trees swung over the forest canopy. The pilot deftly retrieved a tree about every two minutes from various spots at mid-mountain, where 202 lodgepole pines infested with beetle larvae were felled by loggers earlier in the week and painted with blaze orange to help the pilot spot them from above.
Originally, rangers hoped to keep the lower mile of Smuggler Mountain Road open for hikers and mountain bikers, but the fuel truck for the helicopter couldn’t make it up the road, said Gary Tennenbaum, land steward for the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program.
Hasty arrangements were made to allow the helicopter to set down at the Smuggler Mine site at the base of the mountain for periodic refueling and the road was closed from the base at the edge of town.
Thursday’s planned closure was announced in advance and the county had received only a couple of complaints early in the day, according to Tennenbaum.
“Most people got the message,” he said. “The few that didn’t have been really kind of understanding about the whole thing.”
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The city and county own about 250 acres of open space on Smuggler. A local conservation group, For the Forest, spearheaded the plan to cut beetle-infested trees on the open space to slow the spread of the destructive insects, which kill host trees. Mountain pine beetles have already left dead, rust-colored trees over large swaths of Colorado.
Initially, only about 120 trees or so were to be cut, but a tree-by-tree inspection revealed more infested lodgepoles and For the Forest committed to additional fundraising so they could all be removed, Tennebaum said.
The city and county are putting up about $45,000 jointly; For the Forest is contributing about $65,000. The cost includes the logging operation and the application of verbenone in an area covering roughly 130 acres. Verbenone is a pheremone that fools adult beetles into leaving healthy trees alone, sending the message that trees are already infested.
A small crew from Dolores-based Short Forestry is stapling 3,900 packets of verbenone, spaced every 40 feet, to trees in the targeted zone – an effort that was suspended for Thursday’s helicopter operations, but should wrap up by mid-next week.
Use of the helicopter allowed the removal of a cluster of infested trees from a steep hillside along Smuggler Mountain Road where slopes of 60 to 70 percent would otherwise have made the effort unfeasible, Tennenbaum said.
“We weren’t going to touch that. Normal logging would have destroyed that slope,” he said. “There were a good 40 trees in there. A lot of these other areas, you’re not going to see where the beetles attack, but that you would see.”
The helicopter work was finished faster than expected – by early afternoon Thursday – allowing rangers to reopen the area later in the day. The mountain will be open today as usual.
The remaining work must be finished by July 17. The felled trees will be cleared of branches; the slash will be chipped on Smuggler. The logs will be trucked down the mountain next week, but the road will remain open while the logging trucks are operating. The project was timed to remove the trees before adult beetles took flight, infesting other trees.