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Feds: Stopping beetles an expensive proposition

Bob BerwynSummit County correspondent
Pine beetle kill is visible from Highway 9 in Summit County last summer. A lobbying trip by local officials revealed that the tree-killing bugs cant be stopped, but the U.S. Forest Service will combine some funds with local and state dollars to try to protect areas from infestation. (Summit Daily file)
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SUMMIT COUNTY – While hopes are high that a snowy winter will slow the spread of mountain pine beetles in local lodgepole pine forests, top U.S. Forest Service experts say the tree-munching bugs simply can’t be stopped.That’s the message a Colorado delegation brought back from Washington, D.C., after meeting with Forest Service brass and Department of Agriculture officials Jan 30. The lobbying trip was aimed at trying to come up with some funds for forest health and wildfire mitigation work in Summit County and the wider region.”The whole idea was to make them aware,” said Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Director Gary Severson, who represented local and regional interests along with Frisco Mayor Bernie Zurbriggen and Town Manager Michael Penny, Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon and Vail Mountain chief operating officer Bill Jensen.”The Forest Service made it clear that we are not going to stop the beetle,” Severson said. Instead, the focus is on protecting key community values, including residential and commercial property, important recreational resources like ski areas and campgrounds, as well as critical watersheds.”There are communities that still get their municipal water supplies from surface water,” Severson said. It is important, he said, to protect those resources areas from the threat of catastrophic fire.One thing is clear. The Forest Service is not in a position to “throw money” at widespread treatments, Severson said. But the agency is willing to invest dollars where state and local money can help leverage those funds.And that means coming up with a big bundle. The immediate price tag for getting some of the critical work done is about $10 million to $14 million, with an eye toward spending $25 million to $30 million during the next several years.The per-acre cost of treating forests for pine beetles varies widely, depending on the type of treatment and terrain. Severson said the Forest Service offered a ballpark estimate of about $500 to $600 per acre, while Vail Resorts spends up to $100 per tree on its treatments at Vail Mountain. A Colorado State University study came up with a price tag of about $1,500 per acre, Severson said. Private contractors charge about $10 to $15 locally to spray a tree, or about $50 to $100 for cutting infested trees, said Sandy Briggs, a leader of the local pine beetle task force.One of the ideas for coming up with that kind of money involves setting up a special regional taxing district. Such a mechanism would need authorization from the Colorado Legislature and would function like existing water conservancy districts, funded with property mill levies, Briggs said. There is a possibility the Forest Service could provide matching grants for the funds such a district would raise, Severson said.A multicounty property-based funding mechanism might be the best hope for raising the necessary cash, Briggs said. He said it wouldn’t cost too much and could help maintain property values. A backdrop of burned or dead trees in mountain resort communities could have a negative impact on property values, he added.


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