Experts call for rational beetle response
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Scientists and emergency managers Wednesday called for measured response to the pine beetle infestation sweeping through Colorado forests, emphasizing that the insect invasion is part of natural cycle of destruction and renewal.
In some ways, public officials and the media have been too alarmist about the beetle epidemic, Eagle County emergency services manager Barry Smith said during a tour through some of Summit County’s hardest-hit areas.
“I don’t think it’s as devastating a problem as we’ve made it out to be,” Smith said.
“The density of lodgepole pines in Colorado is not due to fire suppression,” researcher Dominik Kulakowski said. “There’s no real evidence that fire suppression has had an effect on the structure or function of the lodgepole forests,” he said.
The best available science shows there is no association between fire and insect outbreaks, Kulakowski said, seeking to dispel several of the most pervasive myths about the condition of local forests.
Lodgepole forests have historically evolved with infrequent, large-scale, stand-replacing fires shaping the landscape, said Kulakowski, who has been studying Colorado forest ecology for nine years. But the fire risk is influenced to a much greater degree by climatic conditions than by insect infestations.
“Climate is driving fires in the Rocky Mountains, not beetles,” Kulakowski said. “All the research shows that outbreaks of beetles have no, or only a minimal, effect, on fire risk, frequency or behavior,” he added.
The half-day jaunt to Sapphire Point and the Wildernest subdivsion was organized by several conservation groups, including the Wilderness Society and Colorado Wild.
The Wilderness Society’s Tom Fry acknowledged that the pine beetle infestation has resulted in some social and economic challenges. But he said it’s important for the public to understand that the insects shouldn’t be seen as an environmental problem, but as part of a natural process.
Much of the discussion about what to do in the face of the beetle epidemic is focused on the fire danger to homes and other important facilities. And that risk has been overstated at times.
“There is a bit of an increased fire risk when the dead trees are still carrying red needles,” said Smith. He explained that, while those needles are still on the trees, they are as flammable as gasoline. But when the needles drop and the trees turn gray ” ghost trees, as Smith called them ” the danger of ignition drops.
Smith discussed the pine beetle issue in the context of human safety.
“Most people think I’m here to protect every house. But we can’t put a fire truck in every driveway,” Smith said. “It’s up to homeowners to protect their property by creating defensible space,”
At a stop along Ryan Gulch Road in Wildernest, Smith expressed concern about wood shingles, the lack of defensible space and the heat-trapping design of some of the homes in the area, pine beetles or not.
“Most of these homes I would write off,” said Smith, who spent decades as a fire fighting professional. “I wouldn’t be willing to risk a firefighter’s life here,” he said.
Smith also said the single road in and out of the neighborhood presents a huge challenge in terms of simultaneously trying to evacuate residents and bring in emergency equipment. Local officials are also aware of the problem and are in the process of developing an evacuation plan for the area, as well as looking at some options for emergency access.
Solving some of the forest management challenges posed by the insects requires a broad-based collaborative approach, said Rob Davis, representing a company that uses beetle-killed wood to make wood fuel pellets.
“If you don’t have the industry leg, you’re not going to get anything done. You can’t protect homes, you can’t use the wood,” Davis said, advocating for a sustainable approach to using some of the dead trees.
Davis said the focus of the timber industry has changed in the past 10 to 15 years.
“The primary interest of the industry now is long-term forest health,” he said. “This is a valuable resource,” he added, sweeping his arms around the sea of red trees in Wildernest. “This is potentially a renewable, sustainable resource,” he said.
But the timber quickly loses its value, in some cases cracking within a year, so that it can’t be used for lumber. Without developing markets for the wood, most treatments will be too costly, Davis said.