Group proposes Smuggler tree removal in June

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
The return of sunshine brings out hikers for a venture up Smuggler Mountain Road. A nonprofit conservation group is proposing minor improvements to the road for removal of beetle-infested trees in June.

ASPEN ” A conservation group wants to remove dead and dying lodgepole pine trees on 250 acres of public open space on Smuggler Mountain this summer to eliminate hazards around trails and slow a pine beetle infestation.

The nonprofit organization For the Forests wants the work undertaken prior to July, when beetles take flight and invade other trees. A delay of even one year will require removing more trees since the infestation is taking root in the mountains around Aspen, said For the Forests Executive Director John Bennett.

“There is some urgency here,” Bennett said at a joint meeting of the Aspen and Pitkin County open space and trails boards.

The boards, which oversee management of the 250 acres of city- and county-owned land on Smuggler, delayed a decision for at least two weeks to give their staffs a chance to digest the proposal. However, at least two board members urged caution on removing trees from the popular recreation area.

Anne Rickenbaugh said she was reluctant to endorse the tree removal without a thorough public discussion. She said she would not tell Aspenites they cannot use Smuggler Mountain Road temporarily “because we’ve got to get the loggers up there” unless there was a public hearing.

The impact on Smuggler Mountain Road, probably Aspen’s most popular route for hikers and mountain bikers, wasn’t fully fleshed out at the meeting. Bennett stressed that no major improvements are planned, such as widening or paving the route. He said “minor grading” and drainage improvements would be necessary to get equipment up the mountain.

The group’s action plan assumes that Smuggler Mountain Road “will not be improved to accommodate large trucks and heavy equipment.

“Any use of Smuggler Mountain Road to remove hazard trees would be done with minimal impact to the road and quickly, over a limited number of days, or nights, in June,” the proposal continued. “One example might be short trucks combined with minor grading and erosion improvements to the existing road.”

Bennett bristled at suggestions that there hasn’t been extensive public input on the mountain pine beetle issue and how it will affect Aspen. Hundreds of people have attended For the Forest events to learn about the problem, and Bennett said the near unanimous reaction is to take action.

“We’ve been on a nonstop public outreach process,” he said.

County open space board chairman Fred Peirce urged caution on taking action. He said the pine beetle infestation is largely a “man-made problem.” Clear-cutting of the trees during Aspen’s mining era created tree stands that were the same age and susceptible to disease. Global warming stresses trees and also makes them vulnerable to pests.

Peirce said efforts to solve a problem often create more problems.

The most immediate challenge facing For the Forests is convincing people that the problem is severe enough to thin substantial swaths of forest around the roads and trails on Smuggler Mountain, and that “improvements” are warranted on Smuggler Mountain Road.

The organization’s “proposed short-term stewardship steps” for this summer include removing infested trees within 150 feet of either side of road and trails on the city and county open space.

“The trees killed by mountain pine beetle near trails and roads will be hazardous to visitors when they begin to fall in a few years,” For the Forest’s proposal said. “The downed trees also add fuel loading to the area, which increases the wildfire hazard.”

Dead and dying trees would be cut down. “Brood trees,” which contain beetle larvae, would be treated. In addition, a chemical called verbenone would be used to prevent the spread of the beetles.

For the Forest is concentrating on treatment of trees on city and county land, for now, rather than the expansive White River National Forest. Treatment on federal land will require extensive environmental analysis.

Lodgepoles have been killed on about 2 million acres in Colorado, turning parts of Eagle, Summit, Grand and Routt counties “red and dead.” After beetles invade, trees turn a rust color.

The infestation isn’t expected to hit Pitkin County quite as hard because of a greater diversity of trees. On the city and county Smuggler Mountain property, for example, only between 10 and 15 percent of the trees are lodgepole pines, according to Chris Forman, forester with the city of Aspen parks department. Areas on top of Smuggler in the national forest have a greater concentration of lodgepoles. Areas like Basalt Mountain and the lower flanks of Mount Sopris are already turning rusty from beetle kill.

Bennett said the proposed action won’t stop the problem, but it will improve safety on Smuggler Mountain.

“Yes it’s small, but it’s something we can do,” he said.

The open space staffs’ analysis will be presented to the city and county boards later this month.