Beetle infestation could radically change ski area

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— Some tree stands that skiers have cherished swooshing through at the Steamboat Ski Area are at risk of disappearing when a bark beetle infestation in the Routt National Forest is in full swing.

"We could, theoretically, lose all of our spruce trees," Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. Project Coordinator Joe Foreman said.

Recently, the U.S. Forest Service identified 10 spruce trees near technical terrain on Steamboat's chutes that are infected with spruce beetles.

Spruce beetle populations have ballooned since the Routt Divide Blowdown, a freak 1997 windstorm that left thousands of trees down and dead.

The Steamboat Ski Area, which is internationally known for its tree skiing, also stands to lose lodgepole pines to the mountain pine beetle, which is approaching the height of its 30-year population cycle.

One pine tree near Sunshine Bowl has been found infested with the beetle.

"There's a high level of concern," Foreman said.

Last year, ski corp. and the Forest Service took measures to curb beetle problems at the ski resort.

Hundreds of trees infested with the insects were burned and trap trees, which are dead trees meant to lure the insects, were placed in strategic areas in an effort to eradicate more bugs.

Plus, officials sprayed other infected trees with pesticide and then put plastic bags around them to trap the beetle, said Diann Pipher, public affairs specialist for the Forest Service.

However, the beetles are tenacious, she said. Many left the trap trees and infested surrounding live timber. Also, insects that were sprayed and bagged bored through the plastic tree coverings and flew into healthy trees.

"They're pretty hardy little things," she said.

With an epidemic on such a large amount of land, officials aren't sure if preventative measures can stop beetles from eventually overtaking live trees, Pipher said.

As part of an environmental impact study on beetle treatment options that the Forest Service is completing, officials are trying to determine at what point they should recognize that suppression efforts are hopeless.

"If we have to cut down all the trees to kill the beetles, what good is that?" Pipher said.

The Brianhead Ski Resort in Utah's Dixie National Forest faced the same problem seven years ago.

A small blowdown area in that forest fostered a population of spruce beetles that eventually killed 20,000 acres of trees, including all the spruce stands at the 800-acre ski resort.

"It's totally different now; it wiped out everything," said Chris Dever, head of the ski patrol at Brianhead. "If you have a spruce beetle epidemic, you'll lose every tree out there."

The small ski area once had skinny trails cutting through thick stands of spruce. Now, it looks as though the resort is above treeline, Dever said.

"I don't know if you can do anything about it," he said. "We had an aggressive spraying program but it didn't stop it."

But Foreman is optimistic that the diversity of timber stands in the Routt National Forest will reduce the visual and recreational impact of the beetles.

Unlike the Dixie Forest, which is 90 percent spruce trees, Steamboat Ski Area has spruce trees and beetle-safe fir trees in roughly equal numbers.

Plus, the ski area's acres of aspen groves won't be impacted by the beetle either.

"It does have a good mix of trees," Pipher said.

Officials estimated it could be two to three years before a high number of trees will be affected by the beetles.


To reach Doug Crowl call 871-4206 or e-mail dcrowl@amigo.net

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