Areas of the Routt National Forest infested by bark beetles and destroyed by fire provide an opportunity to look into the life cycles of healthy forests.
Last week, those areas of the forest also provided an interactive, living classroom for Strawberry Park Elementary School fifth-graders.
Students from all four of the school's fifth-grade classes traveled to the Seedhouse Campground and other nearby areas of the Routt National Forest on Thursday and Friday as part of a science unit on biomes and ecosystems.
The field trips did more than immerse students in a living classroom -- they also served to dispel common misconceptions about forest fires and bark beetles.
Led by U.S. Forest Service employee Rob Sexton and Yampatika naturalist Rebecca Gorney, students first explored the destructive world of bark beetles at a campground where the tiny insects are wreaking havoc on old pine trees.
Once beetles enter a tree and begin feeding, the tree is dead within a month, Gorney told the students. The beetles are able to kill giant trees so quickly because they cut off the tree's nerve and root systems that carry water and nutrients throughout its trunk. The needles of beetle-killed pine trees can remain green up to one year after the tree is killed. Beetles lay eggs in the bark, and the larvae feed on the tree throughout the course of the winter, becoming beetles in the spring and repeating the process again.
Unfortunately for most beetle-infested trees, their only line of defense, sap, usually is not enough to prevent their deaths. The drought conditions that have persisted for the past several years have made it more difficult for trees to produce sap, and the beetles are able to overwhelm the trees before an adequate defense can be mounted, Gorney said.
"The trees can't fight off the beetles like they're supposed to, and that's why there are so many beetles," she told students in Mike Johnson's and Donna Roberts' classes.
But beetle infestation isn't necessarily a bad thing, Gorney said. Beetles only kill older, mature trees, whose deaths will create more room and nutrients for younger trees.
Beetle populations are just one of many disturbances that affect forests. Other disturbances the students learned about include drought, fire, avalanches and logging.
Fire disturbances aren't difficult to find in areas north of Steamboat Springs. The students traveled a couple of miles to an area of the forest destroyed by wildfires just two years ago. In the midst of charred tree stands, students saw young pine and aspen trees emerging from the nutrient-laden soil.
As is the case with beetles, fires also can provide a beneficial service to forests, Sexton told the students. Many trees even depend on fire to allow them to release their seeds into the ground, sparking the growth needed to create the next generation of forests.
Littered on the ground throughout the forest were some of the best educational tools teachers could hope for: partially burned pinecones, young saplings and even invasive weeds that have taken over areas of the regenerating forest.
Roberts said the experience of the field trip is invaluable for the students' education.
"The kids have a chance to actually see it and touch it," Roberts said. "They experience it, and it gives them a chance to ask questions of an expert."
"I think whenever you take kids out and give them hands-on experience, it gets them so interested in what they're learning."
Indeed, the dozens of students who went on the field trips excitedly asked questions and discussed concepts with Gorney, Sexton and their teachers.
"Wow," "cool," and "neat" were oft-heard expressions Friday.
"It rocked," student Lucy Franklin said of the field trip shortly after she peeled back a piece of pine bark and discovering a nesting bark beetle. "I got to find a beetle."
"I thought the trip was really fun, and I learned a lot," student Lexie Baden said. The 10-year-old was particularly surprised by how serious the beetle infestation is.
Students weren't the only ones who had fun on the field trips. Sexton said being able to work with children and getting them into the forest is a mutually rewarding experience.
"I love it," Sexton said. And he loves what the experience provides the children educationally.
"The tactile experience is giving them memories they'll have for years," he said. "They haven't just heard about it in the classroom. They were out here."