Two-person team aids Forest Service with beetles

Workers survey Routt National Forest for infestation areas

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— U.S. Forest Service crews working on keeping the beetle epidemic in check in certain high-valued timber areas recently got some help from the air.

A two-person team from Glendale flew four to six hours every day this week to survey the Routt National Forest.

The annual aerial survey pinpoints areas of beetle infestation and disease. The information is then immediately forwarded to ground crews that use the data to identify where they should focus their efforts.

The Forest Health Protection Group surveys forests in the United States every year.

The team that surveyed the 1,125,568-acre Routt National Forest will fly over other forests in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

It's a mission that begins in July and runs until September.

By the time Erik Johnson and Kelly Sullivan finish their surveys, they will have flown over 25 million to 35 million acres of national forest.

The job can get tedious.

From his front passenger seat in the four-passenger Cessna plane, Johnson stares out the window and looks for signs of beetle infestation and disease.

The needles of infested trees show little fading or discoloring within the first year of a beetle attack. Some trees retain their color for a second year before their needles turn yellowish-green or orange-red.

He denotes the particular areas on a topographic map he positions on his lap. Sullivan, a plant pathologist, assists Johnson with the mapping.

Not an acre is missed. The plane flies about 500 to 1,000 feet above the ground in a back-and-forth manner known as contour flying.

The plane might go as far as 75 miles before turning around.

Contour flying implies the plane stays at the same height above the ground and natural obstructions, such as dense foliage or sloping landscape.

The plane can also fly in a grid pattern.

Aerial surveys provide a consistent method of mapping the Routt National Forest. Consistency ensures Forest Service officials accurately determine whether beetle populations grow, decline or stay the same from year to year.

Johnson said his surveys revealed higher beetle mortality than last year.

"There's probably a tenfold increase," he said.

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