Steamboat Springs The spruce beetle epidemic is expected to swell this summer, but the U.S. Forest Service is planning an aggressive approach to protect certain areas of the Routt National Forest.
On Wednesday, Forest Service officials unveiled an innovative plan to protect the Steamboat Ski Area, campgrounds and scenic corridors within the forest from the swelling beetle population.
"We are targeting certain areas to protect," said Kim Vogel, Hahns Peak/Bears Ears district ranger. "This is the best we can do because we can't stop this.
"This is a very natural event. This is not a disaster."
To protect identified areas of the forest, the plan calls for officials to improve watersheds, spray trees, continue suppression tactics and thin the forest in certain areas.
The cost to implement the plan, which includes planning and education, is about $1 million.
Vogel said she is hopeful the U.S. Department of Agriculture will fund the plan within the next couple of months so the prevention efforts can begin.
The spruce beetle population, along with a healthy mountain pine beetle population, is expected to kill thousands of trees in Routt County this summer. The beetles have the potential to kill the majority of mature spruce and lodgepole pine trees in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming.
"Last year, we started to notice a lot of red trees," Vogel said of trees that are killed by beetles. "This summer, we will see a lot more.
"This is going to have an impact not only in the forest, but also in people's backyards. It is getting to the point where residents need to consider spraying their trees."
So far, spruce beetles have been feeding on a plentiful supply of fallen trees within the Routt National Forest, but officials expect for the beetles to start spreading throughout the county.
Last year, more than 10,000 trees were killed because of the epidemic that has been fueled by the 1997 Routt Divide Blowdown.
During that event, winds exceeding more than 120 mph toppled more than 4 million trees on 13,000 acres within the Routt National Forest.
Spruce beetles have sought out the fallen trees to feed on the cambium layer under the bark, while the dying tree's natural defenses diminish.
With the beetle population surging, the pests are now attacking healthy trees. About 2,000 beetles collectively attack one standing tree, exhaust the tree's defenses and eventually kill it.
From that one tree, between 30,000 and 40,000 beetles can be produced.
To combat the epidemic, officials plan to improve watersheds within the forest.
With trees being killed by the beetles, water flows are expected to increase. Because dead trees no longer use water, the flow will increase, causing drainage problems and erosion.
Watersheds that will be improved are Burgess Creek, Reed Creek, Lizzy Grizzly Creek, Lost Dog Creek, Upper Fork Little Snake River, Colorado Creek and South Fork Slater Creek.
These watersheds will be improved by replacing culverts, improving drainage ditches and stabilizing areas with loose soils. Some areas will also be revegetated.
Trees that will be sprayed with preventative insecticides include 1,000 within the Steamboat Ski Area. Trees around lodges, lifts and in picnic areas will be sprayed.
About 1,100 trees within the forest's 10 campgrounds will also be sprayed. There is one campground, Granite Campground, that will not be sprayed because it is within a municipal watershed. Trees will also be sprayed on Rabbit Ears and Buffalo passes.
Suppression efforts will take place on about 260,000 acres of the forest, which will not include the Mount Zirkel and Sarvis Creek wilderness areas.
To combat the beetles, suppression tactics include burning or peeling infested trees to ensure the beetles do not infest neighboring trees.
Officials also plan to attract beetles to "trap trees" with pheromones. These trees would later be burned or peeled to kill the beetles.
Suppression efforts will be concentrated around Steamboat Lake, Rabbit Ears Pass and in portions of West Routt County.
The last tactic officials plan to use is thinning about 5,700 acres of spruce and lodgepole pine in the Coulton Creek, Floyd Peak and Red Creek areas.
Vogel said thinning the forest is geared to steer beetles away from these areas.
"The intent is to make these areas undesirable to the beetles," she said.
To implement the plan, Vogel said her 40-member staff will handle some of the work. She also said work will be contracted out.
The beetle epidemic is a natural event. It occurs about every 20 to 30 years. This epidemic, which is just beginning, is larger because of the blowdown.