Much work done, much remains to remove dead trees
October 26, 2010
FOXPARK, Wyo. – Beetle-killed timber has been moving out of Wyoming and Colorado national forests by the truckload, the result of tens of millions of dollars in funding and a focused effort to keep three forests safe and open for recreation.
Contractors have removed beetle-killed trees from alongside more than 420 miles of roads and trails in the forests this year, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
They’ve also cleared dead pine trees from more than 20 square miles of forest near homes and buildings, and out of 357 campgrounds and other recreation sites.
The goal is to lessen the danger of falling trees while making it easier for firefighters to protect structures during wildfires.
The work will continue until there’s too much snow on the ground, although some snow can help shield forest undergrowth during operations, said Larry Sandoval, a district ranger in Medicine Bow National forest in southern Wyoming.
“The intent is to keep the national forest open for business to the public,” Sandoval said. “The quicker we get it done, the more quickly the roads and trails are going to be safe.”
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Sandoval said he would like to finish the project in three to five years.
A beetle epidemic has killed 5,550 square miles of lodgepole pine and spruce forest across the region since the late 1990s.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack allocated $35 million for tree removal work last year in three areas: Arapaho-Roosevelt and White River national forests in Colorado and Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in Colorado and Wyoming.
Together, the forests cover a big chunk of the Rockies, from Aspen in central Colorado almost to Casper in central Wyoming.
Senators from Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota and Nebraska asked Vilsack in a letter Oct. 1 to spend another $49 million in the year ahead. They praised last year’s allocation and called the beetle epidemic a “national emergency.”
The Forest Service is treating the epidemic like an emergency by having a regional incident commander oversee tree removal. Usually such a leader oversees a forest fire or some other urgent situation.
“This one is really unique in that it’s not a fast-moving, dire emergency. You don’t see the flames just over the hill coming at you,” the incident commander, Cal Wettstein, said on Tuesday.
Forest officials have become more efficient planning and awarding contracts to remove beetle-killed trees since the work began eight years ago, he said.
“There’s a lot more work to do,” Wettstein said. “But we continue to ramp up.”
Beetles have killed up to 90 percent of the trees in some areas. Along with making roads and trails impassable and campgrounds dangerous, deadfall can get in the way when firefighters are trying to prevent forest fires from reaching homes.
Falling trees also can cause blackouts, something power companies are trying to prevent by clearing dead trees away from power lines, Sandoval said.
While the timber industry can use some of the beetle-killed timber, some companies are stockpiling the timber amid a weak lumber market, he said.
Forest officials predict beetles will continue killing trees until there are essentially no more older and vulnerable trees left to infest.
“They will eat themselves out of house and home, is kind of the bottom line,” Sandoval said.