Aspen, county approve Smuggler tree removal
ASPEN ” At least 125 trees infested with pine beetles will be removed atop Smuggler Mountain near Aspen via helicopter and trucks this summer, and other measures will be taken to ward off further infestation in the area.
City and county officials agreed Tuesday to engage in what’s being called an experiment. It has been recommended by a nonprofit group called For the Forest and is backed by local government staffers.
Removing trees, applying a chemical to ward off the beetles and monitoring the area will cost $87,000 this year. An additional $200,000 may be needed for the next five years if the preventive measures appear to be working.
The steps that will be taken within the next month are meant to slow the beetle infestation ” not stop it. Local officials agree with the Colorado State Forest Service’s assessment that lodgepole pines on Smuggler Mountain will succumb to the pine beetle epidemic over the next several years.
But if the experiment works, actions taken now will stave off what appears to be eminent.
“The long-term impact is not known,” said Chris Forman, the city’s forester. He added that closely monitoring the area is critical to determining the success of their actions.
Some elected officials said it’s a waste of public funds if the area will succumb to the epidemic anyway.
“Why are we investing this money if the result is the same in three years?” asked Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley. “What have we proved?”
Dr. Wayne Sheppard, a Colorado State University expert hired by For the Forest, said the clusters of infested trees on Smuggler Mountain show a classic early beetle buildup and the measures taken now are designed to remove those sections.
“I don’t think the war is lost,” he said. “It’s nipping it in the bud, so to speak.”
Time is of the essence to take the necessary steps before the beetles take flight this month, he added.
City Councilwoman Jackie Kasabach said time is running out.
“If we decide to do this, we can’t screw around for much longer,” she said. “I’m not comfortable doing nothing.”
Stephen Ellsperman, the city’s parks and open space director, told the Aspen City Council and the Pitkin County commissioners that there will be negative impacts to the area as a result of their actions. The open space is jointly owned by the city and county, and is a heavily-used recreational area ” between 450 and 600 users a day during the summer.
Upward of 125 brood trees have been identified as holding live beetles. They will be cut down and lifted via helicopter to the former Wilk Wilkinson property on Smuggler Mountain, where they will be loaded onto trucks and hauled down the road.
Once the trees leave the mountain, they will be chipped and taken to the Glenwood Springs South Canyon Landfill. Disposal of limbs and tree tops will be done through chipping and taken off the mountain via containers and trucks.
Officials estimate that the work will take about one week ” the helicopter can move between 20 and 30 trees an hour. Partial trail closures on Smuggler Mountain and the connecting Hunter Creek Cutoff will be required.
Improvements to Smuggler Mountain Road will be necessary, such as removing loose rock and minor repairs to one cut slope. About five truckloads are anticipated coming down Smuggler Road.
Another significant measure being taken is applying Verbenone ” a semiochemical that mimics a pheromone produced by the mountain pine beetle. The product, which comes in pouches that will be stapled to tree trunks, essentially indicates to beetles that there is no room and they must find another area to inhabit trees.
About 30 pouches will be distributed per acre over 120 acres on Smuggler Mountain. That’s estimated to cost $40,000 annually and will have to be applied for the next five years.
Owsley questioned whether forcing the beetles to go somewhere else isn’t just forcing the problem elsewhere.
“We are going to send these beetles somewhere else but what does that mean at the end of the day?” he said.
Officials also plan to remove 24 dead trees that are considered hazards. They include subalpine fir, Douglas fir and aspen trees that can be felled, and left on site with no threat of spreading insects or disease.
For the Forest has committed to pay for 50 percent of the work, with a maximum of $45,000. However, former Aspen Mayor John Bennett, who leads the nonprofit, said it’s the group’s intention to raise more if the Verbenone is necessary in future years. The other portion of the costs will be paid by Pitkin County and the city of Aspen.
Kelly Rogers, the district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service, said in a letter to local officials that he doesn’t believe their actions will result in staving off the infestation and all the mature lodgepole pines will be killed in the next three years.
County Commissioner Rachel Richards said the agency’s “let it go” approach doesn’t work for her. She cited many actions that local governments have to take the lead on in the absence of state and federal agencies’ willingness.
The county commissioners and the City Council will take votes on the Smuggler Mountain management plan at future meetings. In the meantime, city staffers were directed to put out bids for the work and address some of the concerns voiced by elected officials.
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