Scientists: Despite beetle epidemic, forest resilient | AspenTimes.com

Scientists: Despite beetle epidemic, forest resilient

Caddie Nath
Summit Daily News
Aspen, CO Colorado

Summit Daily News file Beetle-killed forests throughout the West will regenerate, likely with a more diversified composition, according to scientists at Friday's Future Forests Summit in Breckenridge.

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. – University of Wyoming professor Dan Tinker clicked the power point slide at Friday’s Future Forests Summit to bring up a grim photograph.

Reminiscent of scenes from movies set in post apocalyptic worlds, the image showed a forest so destroyed by wind and fire that only a few hopeless stumps still stood, silhouetted against the sky.

It was a photo of Yellowstone National Park in the wake of the 1988 wildfire.

The sideshow flips again to display an image of the same section of decimated forest, a year later. In this photograph, though still charred, the land seems to show signs of attempts at regeneration and in the foreground is a sign showing the first picture and a warning that the area will probably become a tree-less meadow in the coming years.

But Tinker flips the slide again to show a final image of himself, grinning happily in the year 2006, in front of the same area of the Yellowstone National Park, now thriving with beautiful, green pines taller than he is.

“It’s (now) the most productive site in Yellowstone,” Tinker said.

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Tinker’s message, delivered to fellow scientists, community members, U.S. Forest Service personnel and other experts at Friday’s summit was a hopeful one: The forest is resilient, even after the pine beetle has impacted more than 2 million acres in Colorado.

The pine beetle, a native insect that infests the bark of lodgepole pine trees, often introducing a fungus that quickly chokes off the tree’s water supply, killing it, has infected forests across millions of acres from Colorado all the way north to British Columbia.

Friday’s conference, hosted by the Colorado Bark Beetle, provided an overview of impacts of the epidemic both on the forest and on watershed, wildlife and ecosystems in addition to prompt consideration and discussion of what the future of today’s lodgepole forests might look like.

In spite of the somber subject matter, the message that came out of a morning panel at the summit was both hopeful and positive.

Tinker, along with Claudia Regan, a vegetation ecologist for the Forest Service, presented evidence that the pine beetle epidemic has not had catastrophic impacts on either water quality or wildfire risk, though the impacts on wildlife appear to be a mixed bag.

Though research is still in the early stages and is limited to very specific stands of trees, studies present an unclear picture as to whether the epidemic has made lodgepole forests more susceptible to flames.

“I don’t think we know,” Tinker said in response to the question of the bark beetle’s impact on fire danger. “It’s highly variable. It depends on fuel loads, it depends on weather conditions. There’s some forests that burn more severely and some that don’t.”

But when it comes to watershed issues, the picture is somewhat clearer.

Studies have not shown increased runoff or water contamination in beetle-killed areas, and in fact watershed in tree stands that suffered from the bark beetle epidemic fared better than that in clear-cut areas, according to Regan.

Some wildlife species, on the other hand, may be negatively impacted by the acres of dead trees that now cover the mountains, she said.

Both seemed to agree, however, that the bark-beetle represented a time of change and, most likely, diversification for the infected forests. Both committed to the idea that forests are resilient and would regenerate, the experts held that the beetle-killed land might give way to more varied species of trees, which seem already to have begun to take root.

cnath@summitdaily.com