Winning the beetle battle

Forest Service focusing its efforts on protecting ski area

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— Beetle-suppression work isn't easy. Much of it involves hiking through miles of forest with axes and chain saws, cutting down trees and peeling bark off them.

"It can get a bit nasty," Chris Nieman said.

Nieman should know. He and Jason Scott spent much of the fall doing the work for the U.S. Forest Service. They confess that it isn't always fun. Once snow arrives and it arrived early this year the trails become cold and icy, and falls are not uncommon.

Still, Nieman and Scott are happy to be doing what they're doing. They have spent much of the past several weeks seeing the Yampa Valley from the top of the Steamboat Ski Area.

"It's the view that makes it worth it," Scott said. "Plus, you are with good people."

Scott and Nieman are on the front lines of a unique beetle battle. The Forest Service is drawing a line in the sand, so to speak, around the Steamboat Ski Area in an effort to protect it from a massive spruce beetle population in the Routt National Forest. If the beetles get through, they could devour all of the mature spruce trees at the ski area.

The Forest Service has fought beetles before but never has it attempted containment like this.

"We'll be bragging about it if we pull this off," said Andy Cadenhead, a supervisory forester with the Forest Service. "Yeah, we'll be bragging about it."

So far, the effort appears to be working.

A ground survey last summer of 5,000 acres in and around the ski area showed 232 trees were infested with beetles. A survey at the same time in 2001 showed 546 were infested, nearly all of which had the bark peeled from them, according to the Forest Service.

"That was really amazing to see it drop like that," Cadenhead said.

Each year, men and women walk through the 5,000 acres of the forest with global positioning system units, finding, noting and marking every tree that is infested with beetles. Crews then peel nearly all the trees in hopes of starving and killing the beetles.

The early numbers show the process of surveying, cutting and peeling is working. Scent traps and preventive pesticide spraying also have had an effect.

While the work has created some optimism, broader statistics show the daunting task the Forest Service faces.

In 2001, an aerial survey of the Routt National Forest showed 11,000 trees were dying from spruce beetle infestation. This summer, another survey showed 200,000 trees were dying. That number does not include trees that were recently infested and weren't showing obvious signs of decline when the survey took place.

Cadenhead said the Forest Service estimates that more than a million trees are infested right now and that the number will continue to increase.

Unchecked, officials think the spruce beetle population increases 30-fold each year. It will continue like that until all the mature spruce trees in the forest are gone, Cadenhead said.

Those explosive numbers in the rest of the forest are why the Forest Service is excited by the drop in numbers at the ski area, even if it is but a drop in the bucket compared to the bigger picture.

But while the drop in beetle infestation at the ski area from last year to this year is encouraging, it's too early to draw conclusions.

"We are probably five years away from knowing that we made a difference," Cadenhead said.

The spruce beetle epidemic started after the 1997 Routt Divide Blowdown, when millions of trees were blown over by a windstorm in the Routt National Forest. The beetle population grew exponentially in the dead, defenseless timber, until the habitat ran out.

In the late 1990s, the bugs began flying into live spruce stands. Forest Service biologists predicted that nearly all of the mature spruce trees, which are the oldest trees in the forest, would be dead or dying from the epidemic by the end of this decade.

The Forest Service began an effort in 1999 to protect trees at campgrounds and areas considered of high value to humans.

Last year, the Forest Service gave up hope that it could protect trees on top of Buffalo Pass after the beetle population became too large to deal with. However, work around campgrounds and on Rabbit Ears Pass has produced results similar to those seen at the ski area.

But it is the high-profile ski resort where the Forest Service will make its strongest stand.

"All I can say is that early signs are encouraging," Cadenhead said. "As long as we keep the epidemic small, we will be fighting hard."

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