With persisting drought and high temperatures, forest and county officials are preparing for beetle infestations at a scale that the county has not seen for a century or more.
"These infestations are spreading about as rapidly as is biologically feasible," said Andy Cadenhead, forester with the U.S. Forest Service.
"Many of these areas are going to see lots and lots of dead trees. All the trees aren't going to die, but the big ones are going to die. It's really going to change the appearance of the forest."
Officials are encouraging people with uninfected mature pine and spruce trees to do preventative sprayings and are warning the public of increased danger of wildfires because of the dead trees.
If people living near forests do not create a defensible space around their homes, "it probably will be forced on (them) in a fire situation, and we don't want to do that," said Routt County Emergency Services Director Chuck Vale.
Spruce and mountain pine beetles are native to these forests but stay at low populations until the right mix of conditions, such as old trees and hot, dry weather, allows their populations to explode.
The spruce beetles infestation began in the Routt National Forest after the 1997 Blow Down, in which trees in 13,000 acres were pushed over by an intense windstorm, and perfect conditions for beetle populations to grow were created.
The mountain pine beetle population took off because of the recent hot, dry weather, and they have infested trees mostly on private land in the Stagecoach and North Routt County areas. But officials are expecting the bugs to make their way into public land trees soon.
The Forest Service has plans to aggressively combat the bugs in campgrounds and in the Steamboat Ski Area, in hopes of preserving trees that are important for economic and aesthetic reasons, Cadenhead said. They will continue to thin forests in North Routt County and will start to combat mountain pine beetles on the west side of Gore Pass, where populations quickly are growing.
The Forest Service also is looking to support businesses or individuals who might be able to help combat the beetles, from a couple who drives around with a chainsaw cutting dead trees, to business owners who want to open a new sawmill.
Matt Blecha of Steamboat Lake State Park said the park has a plan to treat 150 acres of infested parkland. The focus is on five high-priority areas, including Sunrise Vista and the Tombstone nature trail, which are important for recreation and campgrounds, he said.
All efforts to address the infestation involve selectively spraying uninfected trees, thinning forests before the bugs arrive and cutting and destroying infected trees.
Officials are not working to stop the epidemic because beetle epidemics are natural to forests and because halting the infestations would be impossible. Rather, the goal is to keep valuable stands of trees alive.
For residents who have been spraying their trees, this is not the year to stop, Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger said. If they do stop, they likely will find the trees they had spent money to protect will quickly succumb to the beetles.
"You've been making the investment," Monger said. "Don't quit now because we're not over the hump."
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