In Vail: how do you like your trees? |

In Vail: how do you like your trees?

Matt Terrell
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Heavy machinery cleans up the forest floor around Cordillera at Vail last July after a number of pine trees infected by bark beetles were cut down. Bret Hartman/Vail Daily file)

VAIL ” The forests surrounding Vail are dying, but many locals aren’t grieving yet.

Sure, observers can see a few bare and scraggly patches on the mountainsides, but they still seem green and alive. Even with helicopters swooping in to fly away dead piles of wood, the realization that bark beetles will kill most of the forest hasn’t truly sunk into the collective consciousness of Vail, a group of researchers say.

“The real shock may yet be coming,” said Courtney Flint, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois department of natural resources and environmental sciences. “Some people are just becoming aware of the issue. There have certainly been some dead trees, but there is a sense we are only starting to see it.”

Flint is studying community perceptions and impacts of the pine beetle epidemic ” what the locals are worried about and what the locals actually know about pine beetles. Vail is one of nine Colorado towns, including Silverthorne, Dillon, Frisco and Steamboat Springs, included in the study.

The first half of the study, finished last year, consisted of long interviews with 29 Vail residents, ranging from government officials to bus drivers. The second half will come from an in-depth survey mailed to at least 4,000 residents, including about 500 in Vail, which should be arriving in mailboxes as soon as this week.

While researchers can only glean so much from half a study, they’ve already made some interesting observations about Vail, compared to other communities.

Overall, Vail’s anxiety about losing its pine forests isn’t at a fever pitch yet, Flint said.

“It’s not that they weren’t concerned, but the language didn’t have that high anxiety element to it,” Flint said. “Vail residents would say, ‘At least we have our aspen.'”

That attitude could change in a few years ” perhaps when more dead trees are evident. Flint saw the long-term effects of pine beetles on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, where 90 percent of the forest was destroyed by beetles. There was a very emotional response there, one she’s already seen in other parts of Colorado where the pine beetle has made more progress.

“You go through sort of an initial shock, then a grieving stage, then an acceptance phase, then a moving on,” Flint said. “Many places in Colorado, we’re moving from the shock to the grief. Those changes take a lot of energy, a lot of emotion. Colorado communities are strongly tied to their forests.”

Vail is a resort town, so it seems natural that locals are concerned about keeping the tourists coming in, Flint said.

“They were certainly concerned, but they quickly tied it to the economic,” Flint said. “The whole community is wrapped in that identity and is very concerned about the effect on tourism and property values.”

That attitude is in sharp contrast to a town like Walden in Jackson County, Colo., where they’re seeing the pine beetle epidemic as a chance to revive the economy with wood salvaging and biomass projects.

“While they’re worried about fires there, they are seeing it as an opportunity ” not a sentiment I heard in Vail,” Flint said.

Vail residents, for the most part, want to keep the logging industry out of the tourist area, Flint said.

Economics may be the biggest concern, but Vail residents are far from one dimensional. The residents surveyed so far, like all the communities, showed a wide variety of worries when it comes to pine beetles.

“It’s a fire management issue, but there is also the aesthetic, the watershed and wildlife ” this huge disturbance for their identities,” Flint said.

The point in studying all this is really to help leaders make more informed decisions in controlling the pine beetle epidemic, and the public perspective should be a big part of that, Flint said.

So far, Vail residents are giving big kudos to the Forest Service and the town of Vail for their mitigation efforts, while there are still people who believe forests should be left alone for nature to take its course.

“There was a lot of appreciation for the town’s efforts, and they were quite positive about the local rangers,” Flint said. “They see the need for logging and mitigating risks. But the best science, the best decision making can only go so far if you don’t incorporate your local perspectives and local attitudes.”

Flint said some of these results could change once the surveys are returned, which will give the researchers a much broader perspective.

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