Q. For the past few years, the U.S. Forest Service has been trying to protect mature spruce trees in high-value areas from a large spruce beetle epidemic in the Routt National Forest, including the Steamboat Ski Area, campgrounds and Rabbit Ears Pass. How long can we expect this work to go on and at what point would officials decide if the effort in some places is lost?
A. We expect this kind of work will continue for the duration of the epidemic. This is likely to be for the next five to eight years. One of the more unique aspects of this project (when compared to other efforts at controlling forest insect outbreaks) is that we have built-in thresholds beyond which we will stop work in an area. It is more effective, more cost efficient and causes less adverse environmental effects to treat a small individual outbreak than a large one. So in the high-priority areas, such as the ones listed above, our crews will search out and identify areas of infested trees, and then we will treat those infested trees promptly and aggressively. We are ensuring that we treat individual outbreaks of beetles before they have time to grow. We are also ensuring that we are not going back into the same specific area year after year unless we are making progress in reducing the intensity of the outbreak.
If the outbreak has grown beyond the level of this threshold, we will not take action in that area to treat infested trees. After the epidemic has run its course in an area, we will be looking at whether any rehabilitation or restoration work is needed.
Q. Last year, a survey at the Steamboat Ski Area showed 546 trees were infested with spruce beetles. This year a survey showed 232 new trees were infested. Meanwhile, aerial surveys of all of the Routt National Forest showed a dramatic increase of dying trees from the beetles during that same time period: 11,000 to 200,000 trees. The numbers suggest suppression work within the ski area is working. Do forest officials see the numbers as a sign of success?
A. Not only did we have the 546 infested spruce trees that we found in the summer of 2001, but we also had more than 100 infested spruce trees from the previous year on and around the ski area. We cut down nearly all of the 650 infested trees and peeled the bark off those trees. This treatment killed the beetles that were infesting those trees. Additionally, we placed a number of spruce beetle traps "baited" with an attractant pheromone around the perimeter of the ski area and cut a small number of live healthy spruce trees to act as "trap trees" near these pheromone traps. Our surveys on the ground in and around the ski area this year showed 232 newly infested trees.
A reduction from one year to the next by two-thirds of infested trees in light of the "population explosion" of spruce beetles occurring in nearby areas of the forest is very encouraging. It will take these annual successes occurring each year for the next five to eight years before we can feel completely successful.
Q. Have beetle-suppression efforts on other forests been successful and are crews doing anything unique on the Routt National Forest to fight the beetles?
A. Successful suppression efforts in the face of large-scale spruce beetle epidemics are few and far between. In looking at our local situation, understanding what success looks like is very important. Given that the Routt National Forest has hundreds of thousands of acres of mature spruce trees "ripe" for attack by spruce beetles, and that the blowdown in 1997 provided thousands of "triggers" where spruce beetle outbreaks started simultaneously, there was never a realistic possibility of preventing or stopping the large-scale epidemic from happening. Our Forest Plan provided information about the areas where allowing the epidemics to occur and grow would be unacceptable. These are the high-value areas we are trying to protect, such as the ski area, the wildland/urban interface areas, campgrounds, scenic corridors (Buffalo Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass), and the areas identified for production of timber. We have defined success here as protecting these areas from high levels of mortality from bark beetles.
There are several unique approaches that we are taking to deal with this situation. One is the use of the thresholds in determining whether to suppress outbreaks. Using these thresholds will keep us focused on treating the smaller outbreaks where we can be most effective and will keep us from spending large amounts of time and money on suppression efforts that are ineffective. Another innovative approach that we have taken is to "frontload" our planning (NEPA) process. We have already completed the EIS and issued decision to act. These decisions provide us with the rules of engagement for dealing with outbreaks even though many of these areas are not yet infested. Much of this sounds like common sense but in practice is very difficult because of the myriad of rules and regulations we have to abide by in managing large areas of public lands.
Q. How much does it cost the Forest Service to implement its beetle suppression projects?
A. I expect that we will need to spend at least $600,000 per year to take the actions we need immediately. These costs can be expected to rise as the epidemic grows and the need to protect ever increasing areas occurs.
Q. Is there still time for private landowners to protect their mature spruce trees? What should they do?
A. Most homeowners in the area still have time to protect their property. The can get help from the Colorado Forest Service at 879-0475.