Fighting beetles on Smuggler may not happen this year | AspenTimes.com
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Fighting beetles on Smuggler may not happen this year

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” A group of environmental activists wants crews to be sent into the woods around Aspen in early June to cut down and remove trees that are infested with the mountain pine beetle.

But it appears that hope may not be fulfilled, as things now stand, at least not as quickly as is hoped by former Aspen Mayor John Bennett and his group, For The Forest.

The city of Aspen and Pitkin County last week published an insert in The Aspen Times, “Our Future Forests.” It alerted the public to the threats presented by the beetles’ rampant infestation and outlining what local governments have been doing to meet those threats. Copies of the insert are available through the city’s parks department.

There is growing public awareness of the infestation’s effects, which are being felt throughout the Rocky Mountain region as huge swaths of lodgepole and other pine species are either dead or dying due to beetle attacks.

Officials say that vistas of dead trees are both bad for tourism and pose a potentially devastating threat from wildfires because of the massive fuel load of the dying trees and their dead needles.

Not all officials, however, are in agreement about exactly what should be done about the beetles, and when.

Bennett, director of For The Forest, has been calling for months for quick and concerted action to stem the beetle infestation. Bennett said this week that his group hopes that work crews can be sent to cut down infested lodgepole pine stands in specific areas along Independence Pass, as well as on the Smuggler Mountain open space managed by both the city and county.

“The beetle has infested more than 50,000 square miles of pine forests in British Columbia,” Bennett wrote in a recent guest opinion in The Aspen Times. “In Colorado, 2 million acres of forests have been consumed, and that number is expected to rise again this summer, when the next generation of beetles flies out over the forests in search of new trees to infect.”

Forests in the Aspen area have not been hit as hard by the beetle infestation as areas in the northern part of the state and east of the Continental Divide. This is due to a number of reasons that include the diversity of tree species in the Roaring Fork Valley region’s forests, some of which are not susceptible to the beetle’s attacks. Forest experts also point to the fact that the trees in the Roaring Fork area are not all of the same general age, as they are in other parts of the state, which is another contributing factor in tree vulnerability.

Officials of the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the city and county, said they are not expecting to mount a major attack on the beetle right away, at least not until they have checked with their elected bosses and the electorate on the matter.

For one thing, there are varying theories about how best to cope with the problem.

Some, such as Aspen’s urban forester, Chris Forman, feel that the infestation is too massive to be contained except on a very localized scale. The city already has taken steps to protect lodgepole pines within the city limits, he said, and is looking at options for dealing with the infestation on Smuggler Mountain.

“We’re not going to stop the beetles,” Forman said. “To rush up there and think that we’re going to stop the beetle up there is not a feasible management option.” Some have argued that the beetle infestation is a part of the forest’s natural life cycle and should be left to run its course.

Forman said individual landowners stand a much better chance of protecting pine trees in their yards, by first making sure they are the kind of trees vulnerable to attack and then treating the trees.

Bennett, however, maintains that there is much that can be done to lessen the infestation’s broader impact, including cutting down and removing infested trees and then treating the forest with a chemical known as verbenone. Verbenone is a pheromone, a chemical that causes pine beetles to leave an area by fooling the beetles into thinking it already is occupied by other beetles.

Bennett specifically mentioned 160 acres of the Smuggler lodgepole pines, “particularly the part that you see from town. That size of parcel is very doable.”

He cited the experience of the town of Merritt, in the province of British Columbia, Canada, which claims to have saved more than 70 percent of the Ponderosa pine forest that lies inside a 500-meter perimeter outside the town boundaries.

U.S. Forest Service silviculturist Jan Burke, a leading authority on the beetles in the White River National Forest, also is hesitant to call for an all-out assault on the Roaring Fork Valley infestation based on the Merritt experience. She noted that the terrain is relatively flat around Merritt, and that the forest is easily reached by an army of volunteers equipped with chainsaws and pouches of verbenone. That is not true of Smuggler Mountain, she said, noting that the removal of dead or downed trees is problematic and “to just cut trees down and leave them … can create a larger fuel problem.

“As far as sawdust flying in the national forest, I don’t see that happening in June,” she said of the Forest Service-controlled campgrounds up Independence Pass and the surrounding forest lands. The only exception, she said, would be in cases of “hazard” trees that are in danger of toppling and hitting structures, campsites or trails.

She said the Forest Service has been working with Aspen and other municipalities and groups, including For The Forest, and will continue to analyze the beetle infestation and look for ways to deal with it.

She said work is now under way on different proposals and management plans, including one by For The Forest, and that the Forest Service expects to see the first of those proposals in the spring.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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