John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly

Hmmm, it looks like the bugs are winning.

The mountain pine beetle, for those who have their heads thrust deeply and determinedly into the sand at their feet, has been laying waste to high-country pine forests around the West for years now.

And now that these pesky little buggers have had their fill of trees along the northern and eastern flanks of Colorado’s Rockies, they’ve shifted their feast over the Continental Divide and are rapidly making kindling out of the woods around Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield and other Western Slope counties.

It’s not difficult to detect the path of the bugs; just look for darkly red trees amid a stand of green, or trees where there’s a trunk and branches, but either no needles or dead needles. They’re easy to spot, and their numbers are growing.

But enough stage setting, already.

Forest officials, local governments and others have been engaged in conferences at the highest levels to try to figure out a response to the infestation, to little avail.

One small town in Canada seemed to have it all worked out, sending a fierce army of volunteers into the trees to cut down every single one that showed signs of the bug, and cart it off for disposal.

They also took to hanging little bags of a special chemical in the woods surrounding the town, a chemical that scientists say sends a signal to migrating bugs that the inn is full, this tree already has beetles in residence, go find another. Or, better yet, go find another continent to plague.

One nonprofit guardian of the woods in the Roaring Fork Valley, called For The Forest and led by former Aspen Mayor John Bennett, has been sounding the alarms for months, urging anyone who would listen that the time to act is now.

The act, Bennett says, must involve “selective tree removal” from areas that have offered scenic, tree-filled vistas for decades to skiers, tourists, locals and whoever else came along.

Specifically, in recent weeks, the group has taken aim at the Smuggler Mountain/Hunter Creek area that overlooks Aspen from the northeast.

Government ecologists, too, have been busy studying the bugs, the trees, the winds and whatever else such people study before coming to a conclusion, but they have yet to get there ” the conclusion, that is.

Some scientists and specialists say that groups like For The Forest are being too hasty, too reactionary, too quick to call for the axes and the chain saws. The best course of action, say these doubters, is to let nature take its course, let the trees die, watch out for wildfires and try to manage things better in the future so that entire forests don’t grow up with one dominant species, all the same age, and all susceptible to blights like the pine beetle.

Me, I’ve got no idea. I generally think Bennett and his posse are smart, they’re dedicated public servants and they know what they’re talking about.

Of course, I’ve said that before about Bennett, back in the 1990s when he was mayor of Aspen and tried to convince the rest of the region that bringing train service back to the valley would be a good move. I still think he was right, but you don’t see a train chugging up the old Rio Grande rail bed, do you?

But, back in the trees for a moment, what Bennett’s group advocates is a selective removal of infested, dying or dead trees, along with the use of the chemical to discourage further infestation. And they’re not aiming at the entire breadth and length of the woods, just areas that provide scenic relief for those hardy hordes who leave the city and wander through the

publicly-owned glades of Smuggler. The rest of the woods, for now, is on its own.

The Aspen City Council and the Pitkin County Commissioners recently concluded that For The Forest may have a point, and that there is some urgency to the matter. They say the bugs take flight in July, so the thinning and the anti-bug pheromones have to be used by then.

I think that conclusion was warranted. We can’t save all the trees, no way. But maybe we can prevent the bugs from dining on a few favorite stands that give us solace, shelter and reflective time.

And that’s not just For The Forest, that’s For Us, as well.