Vail’s forest health means more cutting
June 30, 2011
VAIL, Colo. – White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams signed a decision last week that outlines plans to cut about 984 acres of dead trees on Vail Mountain.
The Forest Service says the trees – lodgepole pines that have been infested by the mountain pine beetle epidemic – pose a public safety threat. The project is being called the Vail Ski Area Forest Health Project.
The mountain pine beetle epidemic has infested more than 4 million acres of lodgepole pine trees in Wyoming and Colorado since the first signs of the outbreak in 1996. The dead trees are in danger of falling, creating year-round safety concerns for forest recreation users.
Vail Resorts, which leases the Vail ski area land from the U.S. Forest Service, would likely cut no more than 50 acres in any one year because of funding and other restraints, according to the Forest Service decision released last week.
Tom Allender, Vail Resorts’ director of resort planning, said 50 acres is a lot of trees when you’re talking about this kind of work. Some years the resort might cut 15 acres, and some years it might cut 35 acres, he said.
“It all will depend on how the infestation progresses and how the dead trees react,” Allender said. “If we’re having a lot of (falling trees), then we’ll have to accelerate it.”
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The good news is that Vail Mountain’s forest is not what’s called a monoculture, meaning the majority of the tree stands are mixed with different species. Since the lodgepole pine trees are the pine beetle’s food of choice, trees like furs, spruces and aspens are healthy and thriving.
That means many of the acres identified for cutting in the Vail Ski Area Forest Health Project will not be massive clear cuts, Allender said.
“We do not have a monoculture here, so we’re still going to have a forest on Vail Mountain,” he said.
Dave Neely, district ranger for the Eagle/Holy Cross Ranger District, said the dead trees along ski runs and some along chair lift lines are concerning.
“The No. 1 priority is to protect public and employee safety,” Neely said.
Neely said the Vail Forest Health Project decision is a broad look at the hazards within the Vail ski area boundaries. The decision incorporated a lot of input from Vail Resorts about what they think are critical needs in terms of public safety and dead trees.
“We want to make sure people know that it wasn’t anyone’s desire to go out and do major logging efforts,” Neely said. “We’re in a position of needing to respond to a pretty extraordinary natural event.”
Neely said it wouldn’t be responsible to continue on without taking what he calls common sense steps.
Neely said he’s sure anyone who could hear the trees cracking from within the ski area, like he did last March as he stood next to a tree near one of Vail’s children’s ski areas that had fallen down within the last 24 hours, should agree.
“We can’t just continue to hope that somebody doesn’t get hit,” Neely said.
Allender said work is going on this summer that focuses on those children’s attractions at Vail Mountain. While the Vail Ski Area Forest Health Project is still in an appeal process, the resort has the authority to remove trees identified as hazard trees, meaning they’re a more imminent danger to public safety.
Some of the projects outlined in the decision include clear-cuts as options, but Allender said the decisions really depend on the makeup of the forest in those specific areas.
Vail Mountain completed a clear cut near the top of the mountain, under the Eagle Bahn gondola lift line, in 2008 that changed the look of that terrain. The Vail Forest Health Project shows several areas across the mountain where more clear cuts, thinning and partial cuts within stands will be necessary.
If there’s an island of trees between two trails, and the ground between those two trails is uniform, Allender said the resort might choose to take the whole island of trees out.
But if there’s a stand of trees that serves as a major trail divider in which the resort wants to maintain, or a deep gully where the resort doesn’t want to encourage skiing, then it might choose patch cuts, or tree thinning.
“It changes every year,” Allender said. “While we’ve got the (Vail Ski Area Forest Health Project plans) and it gives us an outline, the work depends on infestation and the aftermath of the infestation.”
Vail Mountain employees and volunteers planted saplings Wednesday in areas on Vail Mountain that were cleared or thinned in 2008 and 2010, covering about 30 acres of terrain with about 1,500 lodgepole saplings that are already about 18 inches tall.
Beaver Creek Mountain employees and volunteers planted 1,700 native lodgepole seedlings at Beaver Creek Tuesday, also in areas where trees have been thinned.
The Beaver Creek Ski Area Forest Health Project, similar to the Vail Forest Health Project, is still under Forest Service analysis and should receive a decision later this summer that outlines the treatment of infested and hazard trees at that resort over the next decade.
The Vail project could begin as early as this summer depending on how the 30-day appeal process goes, Neely said.