The cure for the Smuggler blues |

The cure for the Smuggler blues

Aspen, CO Colorado

If you’ve driven through Grand or Summit counties during the past year, then you already have some idea of what the mountain pine beetle can do to a lodgepole pine forest. In those parts of Colorado, entire mountainsides have turned from a coniferous green to a rusty red as the beetles devour thousands of acres of trees.

All this standing dead timber poses both a huge wildfire risk and, in areas near homes, roads, campgrounds and other developed areas, a danger to people and their property from falling trees.

It goes without saying that we don’t want a mass beetle infestation in or near Aspen. Fortunately, foresters tell us that Pitkin County’s forests are, by and large, more diverse than other mountain counties, so it’s unlikely we’ll see the same kind of devastation that other areas have.

Still, we have seen pockets of bug-kill locally, and experts have warned us to expect more beetles in the near future. We can simply wait and hope the bugs won’t proliferate here, or we can take preventive measures.

A local nonprofit, For the Forest, has proposed a preventive plan for specific areas of Smuggler Mountain that offers a large potential upside with a minimal downside. The group is seeking to partner with the city of Aspen and Pitkin County to remove dead and dying timber from the Smuggler Mountain Road corridor and to treat viable trees in the same corridor with a hormone that repels the beetles.

Why Smuggler Mountain? Because the open space on Smuggler is owned mainly by local governments, and there’s a chance of making a real difference in the next couple of months, rather than having to wait until next summer. It’s true that Smuggler Mountain is just one piece of a vast, wooded wilderness surrounding Aspen, but it is a popular portal to the backcountry and local citizens have the power to decide what happens there. To cut down trees on federal land would require slashing first through huge thickets of federal red tape; on city/county open space, however, our elected leaders call the shots.

It makes sense to remove problem trees as soon as possible, because such a move may just prevent the bugs from gaining a local foothold. For the Forest is only proposing to remove dead and dying trees from within 150 feet of roads and trails; this will not be a devastating clear-cut, but a selective operation requiring few if any new roads.

So, you ask, what’s the downside? This proposed operation would be disruptive. It will mean truck traffic on Smuggler Mountain Road, the sound of chainsaws in the woods, and reduced access to certain areas for some weeks. There will be fallen timber, wood chips, disturbed soil, trampled plants and the like.

But the short-term damage, we believe, will be outweighed by the long-term benefits.

We hope the city of Aspen and Pitkin County proceed with this common-sense plan. It may have a meaningful impact on the beetle, and we also stand to learn valuable lessons that can be used against the bug armies in other areas of our local mountains.


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