Pitkin County gives nod to Smuggler beetle plan
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – A second year of effort to keep pine beetles at bay on Smuggler Mountain open space near Aspen won Pitkin County’s blessing Tuesday.
The county’s Open Space and Trails Board recommended the $38,895 expenditure and county commissioners gave project an informal nod, with Commissioner Patti Kay-Clapper absent and Michael Owsley dissenting.
“I think it’s a gardening project that’s doomed to failure,” said Owsley, questioning the wisdom in preserving an island of lodgepole pine and the ability of the U.S. Forest Service to save trees on federal land surrounding Aspen and adjacent to the Smuggler open space, which is jointly owned by the city of Aspen and the county.
“What’s the value to our community of spending that kind of money if we can’t upscale it?” Owsley said. “What are we actually doing here?”
Federal dollars have been allocated to dealing with the beetle epidemic that has decimated western lodgepole forests, particularly in Colorado and Wyoming, but how that funding will be spent locally isn’t yet clear, commissioners were told.
“They (the Forest Service) is not there yet in terms of getting their heads around management on that scale,” said Stephen Ellsperman, city parks and open space director, in reference to the Smuggler project. The Smuggler effort will include helicopter logging and treating about 120 acres with verbenone, a pheromone that fools adult beetles into leaving healthy trees alone. Roughly 52 infested “brood” trees will be cut and hauled out of the forest with use of the helicopter.
The county expense totals one-third of this year’s projected cost. The city of Aspen and local conservation group For the Forest are also expected to each pay a third of the $116,692 total bill – a sum that also includes public outreach, removal of dead hazard trees and ongoing monitoring.
A long-term forest management plan for all of the tree species on the Smuggler open space is still in the works, but the beetle project will help achieve one of the plan’s goals – achieving a diversity of not only species, but of age, said Gary Tennenbaum, land steward for the county.
“If we can slow [the beetles] down, we can provide some age-class diversity right now,” he said.
Last year, the first for the project, proved effective at slowing the attack of the beetles, he noted. Slightly more than 200 brood trees were removed last summer and verbenone was applied.
Saving mature lodgepoles on the open space helps establish an age-class diversity that will be lost if all the pines succumb to beetle kill, Tennenbaum explained.
“This is a good investment for the short term,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield, though he acknowledged predictions that “no matter what we do…the forest is toast.”
Commissioner Rachel Richards also supported a second year of the project. Halting it after one year, she said, “is like going halfway to the moon.”
How many years local government must continue the effort before the threat has passed has not been determined, but it’s an oft-asked question. On Tuesday, it was on Commissioner George Newman’s mind.
“At some point, when does this experiment end?” he asked. “Will we be having this discussion again next year?”
The effectiveness of this year’s work will help shape the recommendations in the long-term management plan, Tennenbaum said.
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