What’s next for Smuggler beetle project? | AspenTimes.com

What’s next for Smuggler beetle project?

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Aspen Times file

ASPEN – With the pine beetle epidemic apparently on the wane this year on Smuggler Mountain, Aspen and Pitkin County officials are mulling the need for a third year of costly helicopter logging to protect open space there.

In both 2009 and 2010, the city and county, along with nonprofit For the Forest, shared in the cost of cutting and plucking beetle-infested trees from the forest and treating the area with verbenone, a pheromone that fools adult beetles into leaving healthy trees alone.

The preliminary results of last summer’s work, recently forwarded to government officials, are now under scrutiny. The data will dictate future plans to deal with the beetle, to be incorporated into a broader, 10-year management plan for the Smuggler open space that is due out in January.

The plan will get public and government review before it is formally adopted, said Stephen Ellsperman, city parks and open space director. Whether there is a third year, and possibly successive years, of the intensive efforts to slow the beetle will be among the key recommendations within the plan.

“That’s the pivotal question,” Ellsperman said. “I’m not sure that’s what I’m going to recommend, frankly.

“I want the answer to be ‘no’ – that we’re going to manage it in a different way.”

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The city and county jointly own about 210 acres of open space on Smuggler, a popular recreation area flanking Aspen’s northeast side. About 120 acres of that area has been the target of the two-year effort to slow the spread of the destructive beetles. Initially, the project was framed as a two-year experiment, assuming the first year proved beneficial, which it did.

In 2009, 202 lodgepole pines, infested with mountain pine beetle larvae, were cut down and hauled to a central site on Smuggler with a helicopter, and then taken off the mountain. In addition, the 120 acres was treated with verbenone. Just those two actions cost $102,930, with the city, county, a private landowner and conservation group For the Forest sharing the cost.

This year, with the removal of about 52 trees, plus another round of verbenone application, the price dropped to $116,692, split by the city, county and For the Forest.

“That’s a lot of cost,” Ellsperman said. “We have a lot of open spaces and we have a lot of needs.”

He anticipates, though, that the second year of analysis on the beetle efforts will again show a decline in beetle activity on the open space. There has also been a decrease in beetle infestation on the mountain in general, both Ellsperman and Pitkin County land steward Gary Tennenbaum agreed.

“The basics are that beetle activity has slowed,” Tennenbaum said. “Slow enough that we stop, or do we still continue? Those are questions we have to flush out.”

Beyond the boundaries of the open space, public lands managed by the Forest Service are the focus of planning by that agency and For the Forest. So far, no treatment has been done on the national forest, but areas of the forest adjoining the open space were studied as part of the city/county beetle project. The analysis compared the incidence of beetle infestation on the open space to what occurred outside the project area.

If the helicopter logging does not take place again in 2011, continued efforts to prevent a beetle-caused die-off of trees on Smuggler could take a less costly approach, Ellsperman said. The helicopter was used to extract trees from the forest without causing a lot of disturbance on the ground. Wintertime logging and the use of snowmobiles to pull trees out is an alternative to hauling trees through the air, he said.

Among the long-term management plan goals for Smuggler will be achieving a diversity of tree species and age – both factors that can help a forest withstand a beetle epidemic, Tennenbaum told county commissioners last spring, when they agreed to fund a second year of logging and the verbenone application. Saving mature lodgepole pines on the open space helps establish an age-class diversity that is lost if all the pines succumb to beetle kill, he said.

janet@aspentimes.com