Smuggler beetle plan advances

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” A plan to slow a pine beetle infestation on Smuggler Mountain this summer appeared to have general support from Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday, but exactly what will be done and how much it cost will influence their final decision.

Time is short, warned representatives of the conservation group For the Forest, which has proposed moving quickly with a combination of cutting down infected lodgepole pines and use of an organic compound, verbenone, which steers the beetles away from trees.

Commissioners acknowledged the rush to get something done before beetles take flight from infected trees this summer, spreading to other lodgepoles on the mountain, but there is a public process to follow, noted Commissioner Patti Clapper.

“I am concerned we are going to be so muddled in our own process that we’re going to miss an opportunity this summer,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards.

“We are moving, hopefully, as quickly as the bugs are moving ” hopefully faster,” Clapper said. “I am in no way saying there isn’t something that should be done and could be done in a timely manner up there.”

For the Forest, working with city and county staffers and consultants, has identified about 15 “epicenters” of dying trees within 150 feet of roads and trails that crisscross 250 acres of open space on Smuggler, according to Wayne Shepperd, a consulting silviculturist working with Dahl Environmental Services on the For the Forest plan. Smuggler, flanking Aspen’s northeast side, is a favorite local playground.

In all, the epicenters contain about 200 “brood trees” that are infected with beetle larvae; the bugs are expected to take flight in July, if not sooner, he said. Experts figure every infected lodgepole leads to the infection of five more.

“By removing those trees now, you’re stopping that exponential spread,” said Shepperd, who compared the Smuggler of today to areas of Grand County a decade ago. Stands of dead, rust-colored lodgepoles now cover large swaths of Grand County.

Smuggler benefits from a greater diversity of trees, but there are still plenty of lodgepoles on the mountain, said John Bennett, executive director of For the Forest.

“Would you rather walk or bicycle through dead trees or live trees ” that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

Bennett described the proposed effort on the Smuggler open space, owned by the city of Aspen and the county, as a demonstration project while a broader approach to attacking the beetle continues to be formulated. Because the open space is not controlled by the Forest Service, the bureaucratic hurdles the group faces in addressing infestations on federal land can be avoided.

The project won’t stop the spread of beetles on Smuggler, but will hopefully buy the mountain some time while further steps are explored, Bennett said.

The city and county have hired two consultants and are working with a state forestry official to evaluate the For the Forest proposal, said Stephen Ellsperman, Aspen director of parks and open space. The findings will be presented to the open space boards of both governments, which will then make recommendations to their respective elected officials, he said.

The impacts of tree removal on Smuggler, a popular recreation area, and the costs of the plan need to be nailed down, Ellsperman said.

For the Forest may be able to raise half the cost of the project, depending on what plan of action is approved, Bennett said.

Richards urged staffers to move quickly, asking whether commissioners could take action in June.

“I absolutely agree with Rachel that we can get bogged down on process forever,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield. “I would like to take advantage of the season if we decide that’s what we’re going to do.”