Aspen, county mull second year of Smuggler beetle battle
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Aspen and Pitkin County open space officials questioned the need Thursday for a second year of efforts to save open space on Smuggler Mountain from destructive beetles, but they didn’t reject the idea.
Instead, the Open Space and Trails Board for each jurisdiction will meet independently and arrive at a recommendation for their respective elected officials, the City Council and county commissioners.
There was skepticism about going forward with the first year of the experiment last summer, when 202 lodgepole pines, infested with mountain pine beetle larvae, were cut down and hauled to a central site on Smuggler with a helicopter, and then taken off the mountain. In addition, about 120 acres were treated with verbenone, which fools adult beetles into leaving healthy trees alone.
Just those two actions cost $102,930, with the city, county, a private landowner and conservation group For the Forest sharing the cost.
This year, with 52 brood trees on the open space identified for removal, plus another round of verbenone application, the estimated cost drops to $69,328.
“We’re buying time with this, but for what purpose?” asked Hawk Greenway, chairman of the county open space board.
The project, he was told, buys time for mature stands of lodgepole pines that could otherwise be lost while a long-range forestry management plan is drafted for Smuggler. The plan’s authors hope to achieve a diversity of tree ages and species on the open space. Such a forest is better able to fight off insect infestations.
Last year, staffers were skeptical that the costly beetle project on Smuggler would work, but follow-up research showed it slowed the spread of the destructive insects on the open space, said Gary Tennenbaum, land steward for the county.
Researchers noted a 40-fold increase in the attack rate immediately around brood trees that remained, compared to areas where the brood trees were removed, but some open space board members wondered how long government is supposed to keep such an effort up.
“I’m somewhat resigned … once we took the step we took last year, we’re out in the middle of the creek on this one,” said Dale Will, county open space director.
“We don’t want to be in this intervention mode for any longer than we have to,” he added. “Certainly, we can’t hold off a 20-year beetle epidemic by application on 160 acres. It’s silly.”
“In the long-term plan, you’re not going to see us trying to save every single lodgepole to the end of its life,” Tennenbaum assured the group.
The beetle project was envisioned as at least a two-year experiment if the initial year was a success, said Stephen Ellsperman, city parks and open space director. No one suggested it should continue indefinitely.
Preserving old-growth lodgepole on Smuggler will be more important if the large stands on adjacent Forest Service land, stretching toward Independence Pass, succumb to the insects, said city forester Chris Forman.
The beetle epidemic that has killed large swaths of Colorado forest hasn’t hit in full force locally, he said.
“We haven’t hit, in my opinion, the spike in (beetle) population level on our doorstep,” Forman said.
The total budget for this year’s project, including the logging and verbenone application, education/public outreach, removal of dead hazard trees that are not brood trees, and ongoing monitoring of the effort, will cost an estimated $116,692, with the city, county and For the Forest each picking up $38,895.
Last year’s project included far greater monitoring costs to collect the baseline data, in addition to the higher logging costs. The total budget came to $164,177, with the city and county each spending $42,747.
Smuggler Mountain, flanking Aspen to the northeast, is popular with hikers and mountain bikers.
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