Glancing blow for valley in removal of hazardous trees?
October 30, 2009
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The U.S. Forest Service’s increased focus on removing dead trees along roads, trails and campgrounds won’t hit Pitkin and Garfield counties nearly as hard as Eagle and Summit counties, according to the organizer of the effort.
Jan Burke, forest health coordinator for the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest, headquartered in Glenwood Springs, said the removal of hazardous trees has already had a drastic effect on the east side of the sprawling national forest, which stretches from Rifle to Summit County and south of Aspen to north of Glenwood Springs.
“We’ve had to flat clear-cut five, six campgrounds” near Dillon Reservoir and other parts of Summit County, Burke said.
That drastic of action won’t be required in the Aspen-Sopris District in the high ground surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley for a simple reason – the eastern part of the forest has more lodgepole pine trees, which have been ravaged by a bark beetle epidemic in recent years. Entire sections of formerly green woods look like they were hit by napalm bombs. Needles have turned rust-colored on some trees; they are ashen gray on skeletons of trunks and limbs in other places.
“Three, four years after these trees die, they’ve got some pretty good rot,” Burke said. “None of our trees have tap roots around here.” That makes them more likely to topple in high winds.
Small patches of lodgepoles are dead and dying around the Roaring Fork Valley, but the tree diversity is greater here, and the concentration of lodgepoles is less. The popular Chapman Campground, in the upper Fryingpan Valley, has had extensive tree removal in recent years. However, it’s a “poster child” for how campgrounds can be managed and how they can look, Burke said. The campground has a mix of aspens, lodgepoles, spruce and other trees. Trees there are also various ages. That makes parts of the woods less susceptible to getting wiped out by beetle infestations and other epidemics.
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But the Aspen-Sopris District hasn’t escaped the wrath of the beetle, so it will be affected by the removal of hazardous trees. The corridors along roads and trails will be targeted, as will places where people congregate, like campgrounds, picnic areas and trailheads.
Burke pointed to Smuggler Mountain Road, on the national forest above the city of Aspen and Pitkin County open space, as a location where hazardous tree removal will have a visible effect. Forest Service crews, prison work details and contractors will go into designated areas and cut trees along the road corridor that could fall on the route. The first step in the process will be surveying the forest to see where the current threats exist. The Forest Service will use common sense in assessing threats – and avoiding unnecessary clear cuts.
“A 20-foot tree that’s 100 feet from a trail is not a hazard,” Burke said. “We are not advocating cutting every dead tree in the forest.” That said, in places where a forest road is paralleled by dead and dying trees that are 60 feet high, swaths of 60 or so feet will be cut on either side of the road. In some cases, the remaining live trees will also be cut, Burke said. When just a few live trees remain, they are more susceptible to wind.
Dealing with hazardous trees has always been a part of the Forest Service’s job. Forest crews regularly cut down and removed dead and dying trees from areas where they could fall on people. In the past, the agency, which operates under strict federal environmental regulations, often studied a problem, proposed a solution and gave itself a categorical exclusion to carry out the work. That avoided more intense environmental study, but it still required time.
Now that the problem is more severe and widespread because of the bark beetle epidemic, Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams handed down a hazardous tree removal decision which will streamline the work for up to 10 years. It’s not just infested lodgepoles that are the problem, Burke said.
The Forest Service decision doesn’t affect public lands within ski areas. The agency recently launched a separate initiative to assess the problems and come up with solutions at the four Aspen-Snowmass ski areas, Vail and Beaver Creek, and those in Summit County within the White River.
The problem, in the case of some ski areas, is severe. “These are ski resorts in the middle of a large beetle infestation,” Burke said.
The forest is relatively healthy in three of the Aspen Skiing Co.’s four ski areas, Burke said. Buttermilk, which is a mix of public and private lands, has a more severe problem with bark beetle infestation in lodgepoles and sudden aspen decline, a disease affecting aspen trees of a certain age, she said.
“Their aspen is absolutely falling apart,” she said of Buttermilk.