Experts say beetle infestation crossing the Continental Divide |

Experts say beetle infestation crossing the Continental Divide

Trevor Hughes
The Coloradoan/AP
Aspen, CO Colorado

FORT COLLINS, Colo. ” As federal officials prepare to announce on Monday that the mountain pine beetle infestation has crept east over the Continental Divide, Front Range forestry experts say residents should prepare for major changes in what the mountains look like.

The pine beetles are responsible for killing vast numbers of trees – mostly lodgepole pines – in Grand, Eagle and other mountain counties. Now, the beetles have migrated over the Divide and are working their way downhill.

“It’s an epidemic. There’s not much we can do on a large scale,” said Bob Sturtevant, a forestry specialist with a dual appointment from Colorado State University and the Colorado State Forest Service.

He added: “We’ll have a new forest. It’s going to look different.”

The beetles bore their way into trees, killing them, then fly off to find new homes. Sturtevant said homeowners can protect the trees around their property through spraying and judicious thinning, which can help strengthen remaining trees.

In Frisco, town officials cut down 18,000 trees in 2007 alone, hoping to slow the spread of the beetle and increase overall forest health. The town plans to replant logged areas with saplings of different species, such as aspen or spruce.

“Those little guys are eating just about anything in their path,” said Rick Higgins, Frisco’s assistant public works director and the man helping lead its bark beetle response. “We’re trying our best to help the forest get on with its life.”

Experts say the lodgepole pine forests are more susceptible to the beetles than usual due to the 2001 drought, which stressed out the trees and weakened their natural defenses.

Once the beetles kill the trees, the standing trees become a wildfire hazard for several years, until they lose their needles, Sturtevant said. Then the fire danger diminishes until the trees fall over, and they again become fire hazards, he said.

Western Slope towns have adopted a slew of strategies to reduce the risk of a catastrophic wildfire. Frisco concentrated its efforts on the Peninsula Recreation Area on Lake Dillon, spending about $300,000. Vail has spent $380,000 on similar work.

And in Grand Lake, town officials are ordering homeowners to cut down beetle-killed trees, and will fine residents and do the work if the homeowners don’t act fast enough.

While the beetle infestation is part of the natural cycle, people often forget that, Sturtevant said. He was hired in the 1970s to help fight the previous pine beetle infestation.

“The big deal is the esthetics. It don’t look right to people who are used to looking at a forest of green trees,” he added. “Our newer forest is going to be more diverse. You’ll see more aspen, more spruce coming in.”

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