Beetle battle in forest may intensify |

Beetle battle in forest may intensify

Matt Terrell
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
A car travels under trees killed by pine beetles along Tigiwon Road in Minturn, near Vail. The Forest Service is planning to clear some areas to reduce the risk of fire and help grow new trees. The beetle outbreak also poses a threat to the look of the forest in the Roaring Fork Valley; see this week's Aspen Times Weekly for details. (Shane Macomber/Vail Daily)

EAGLE COUNTY ” Mary Ross sees the point in clearing the beetle-killed pine trees surrounding the high-dollar buildings in Vail.

But as she started up the Grouse Lake trail near Minturn Thursday and saw where acres of trees may be cut down and cleared in next few years, she had a tough time understanding why.

“There’s nothing here. I don’t understand the need yet,” she said. “Why cut them all down here?”

The U.S Forest Service is indeed looking to become more aggressive in its quest to help the valley through a destructive mountain pine beetle outbreak.

A proposed pine beetle plan, called the Upper Eagle River Beetle Salvage Project, is aiming to salvage 2,300 acres of dead and drying trees before they fall to the ground.

Doing this will allow the Forest Service to sell still usable wood, keep dead and more easily ignited trees off the ground and start growing a new forest, officials say.

Doing this though will require extensive “clear cutting,” which, like it sounds, means cutting down all the trees in an area, leaving large pockets of open space in the treated areas of the forest.

This aggressive type of cutting has often been a tough sell to some of your average, tree loving citizens. Why clear cut here, and why do anything at all?

Clear-cutting is not a passive way of managing a forest. But at this point in the pine beetle outbreak, just thinning a forest won’t work, officials say.

“If only dead and infested trees are removed, the remaining trees would soon become infested themselves or blow down,” said Jan Burke, a tree expert with the Forest Service.

In the areas slated for cutting, most of the trees are already dead or dying. Within 3 to 5 years of dying, a lodgepole pine is so deteriorated and dry that it can’t be sold as commercial lumber. It’s a lost opportunity that can be seen in the fields of dead, useless trees turned down by loggers in the Williams Fork area.

The dead trees left behind shed their needles and branches and then fall to the forest floor. The pines, filled with sticky, combustible pitch, make great fuel for wildfires.

The Forest Service would rather take advantage of those trees and sell them to recover some of the costs of regrowing a new forest.

When dead trees are covering the forest floor, blocking sunlight, it also makes it more difficult for new ones to start growing. Clear cutting makes growing new pines and aspen much easier, Burke said.

With this project only clearing out a small fraction of the White River National Forest, and with foresters saying that a large scale wildfire is inevitable, will all this work really help much in case of the big fire? If the work isn’t directly surrounding a town, why not let nature take care of itself?

The proposed areas for treatment include Indian Creek north of Vail and the West Grouse, Tigiwon and Yoder areas south of Minturn along Highway 24.

While these areas aren’t in people’s back yards like in the Vail forest health project, the Grouse Lake area is in fact closely behind Minturn, and all the proposed areas are parts of important watersheds.

“It’s not just towns we’re trying to protect from fire” these are critical watersheds,” said Cal Wettstein, resources and planning staff officer for the White River National Forest. “The Indian Creek area, the Tigiwon area, those could be highly impacted areas.”

The Forest Service admits that yes, these areas are tiny compared to how large the White River National Forest is. They still see the need to do what they can where they can.

“In the big scheme of things, when they do burn, we want to decrease the severity,” Wettstein said. “It is a small area, but where we can affect a positive change, we will.”