Feds, greens point fingers over beetles | AspenTimes.com

Feds, greens point fingers over beetles

Scott Condon

Seven years after unusually high winds toppled thousands of trees on 3,000 acres southwest of Glenwood Springs, the U.S. Forest Service is finally launching a timber salvage project.Unfortunately, officials said Thursday, it comes too late to prevent a spruce beetle epidemic that has the potential to alter the look of the White River National Forest from Sunlight Mountain Resort to McClure Pass and into the Aspen area.Large spruce trees on more than 100,000 acres 20 miles southwest of Glenwood could be doomed, according to forestry expert Jim Thinnes, a regional silviculturist at the Forest Service’s Lakewood office.”We don’t know how big it’s going to get,” Thinnes said. “I’d say it’s extremely big. It’s almost like a fire starting. We can’t stop it at this point.”The White River National Forest supervisor’s office bypassed its customary caution on controversial issues and suggested in a news release Thursday that a dispute with environmentalists delayed efforts to stop the beetles’ spread.The Forest Service completed an environmental impact statement on the project, known as the Baylor Park Blowdown, and approved a timber salvage in August 2001. A coalition of environmental groups made an administrative appeal that October. That appeal was denied, so the coalition filed a lawsuit and acquired an injunction to stop logging after 200 or so acres were “treated.”The Forest Service and environmental coalition reached an agreement in February 2003 that required the federal agency to undertake additional studies before resuming most logging projects.”The original treatments were proposed when the beetles were still contained to the blowdown trees,” the Forest Service said in a news release. “The settlement was made after the beetles had moved out of the blowdown and were killing healthy spruce.”Greens say feds got ‘greedy’Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, heatedly disputed the Forest Service’s news release, which he characterized as, “If those damn environmentalists hadn’t slowed us down we could have done something about this.”He countered that if the Forest Service “hadn’t gotten greedy and gone for a windfall” there would have been no objection to the timber project. Wilderness Workshop was among the group that appealed and sued over the Baylor Park project.The initial Forest Service plan called for logging of the fallen and standing dead trees on the 3,000 acres referred to as Baylor Park and thinning of live spruce trees in areas adjacent to the blowdown.Shoemaker claimed the timber sale of live trees wasn’t necessary to prevent the beetle epidemic. It was intended to raise money for the agency, he said.”We would have stood aside and said, ‘Go for it. We won’t stand in your way if you stay in the blowdown area,'” he said.Thinnes said the environmental coalition’s preferred scenario wasn’t realistic. There wasn’t enough time for the Forest Service to remove all the spruce from the blowdown area within two years. Therefore, it had to take precaution in the live spruce around the perimeter of the blowdown area, he said.Beetle invasion: Good or bad?Spruce beetles are always lurking in the forest. Under normal circumstances, healthy trees can repel attacks from beetles that try to burrow in to lay eggs.When the windstorm struck the area – where Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa counties converge – the beetles had an instant insect buffet of damaged and weakened spruce trees. The beetles laid millions of eggs in individual trees. The larvae spent two years feasting on an inner layer of bark. They emerged and started the process over.When the blowdown no longer provided suitable habitat, the beetles sought live trees. “They really focus on the biggest spruce. The bigger the better almost,” Thinnes said.After the orgy in the blowdown area, the beetles were able to attack live trees in numbers that overwhelmed the trees’ defenses. “That’s what’s been happening now for the last four years,” he said.The needles of the unwilling hosts quickly turn gray and fall off, leaving standing dead trees known as snags. Thinnes said the spruce beetles’ work shouldn’t be confused with that of the mountain pine beetle, which attacks lodgepole pine and turns trees a rust color. The mountain pine beetle has hit the Vail area and Summit County hard.To slow the spruce beetle infestation, the Forest Service wanted to thin live spruce.The environmentalists question why the agency wanted to interfere in a natural process. Spruce beetle outbreaks have occurred since there were spruce trees, Shoemaker reasoned.”This is what happens,” he said. “This is how forests regenerate themselves. They probably shouldn’t be doing anything, because it’s how healthy forests behave.”Thinnes said forest officials are concerned because when the large spruce are gone, sub-alpine fir trees will take over, reducing diversity and threatening forest health.The Forest Service figured treatment of the Baylor Park Blowdown is better late than never. It will salvage timber within the blowdown area for wood products and to reduce the risk of fire.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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