Chain saws roar, loggers call to one another, and a tree trunk snaps. A lodgepole pine topples into the snow, its branches cracking as it falls through the mountain air. After sawing off its limbs, loggers use cables to attach the trunk to a skidder and haul the tree off the mountain.
Thursday's scene has become a familiar one lately -- an estimated 1,500 pine trees will be removed from the slopes of Steamboat Ski Area before mid-June as part of a collaborative effort between Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. and the U.S. Forest Service to combat a bark beetle infestation that began nine years ago. The infestation is ravaging much of Western Colorado and the western United States.
"It's something that has to be dealt with," David Crisler, slope maintenance technician for Ski Corp., said as he drove a Snowcat up Vagabond ski trail towards a cutting site last week. "Will people notice a difference? Yes, probably. But if we didn't do anything, it would be much worse. Beetles would devastate the entire area."
Bark beetles have devastated huge tracts of forest in Northwest Colorado, including thousands of acres in the Routt National Forest. An ongoing battle to combat the spread of beetle infestations has stepped up this year as politicians work to increase state and national funding; forest agencies join together to continue or begin projects in local areas such as Gore Pass; and Ski Corp. fights to preserve its scenery by minimizing its losses.
Ski Corp. began cutting down beetle-infested trees in 1998, Crisler said. That year, loggers hired as private contractors felled about 150 pines. In 2005, the number reached 700, and Ski Corp. began selling the timber.
This spring marks the second timber sale by Ski Corp., which will pay the Forest Service for the trees and then resell them to a variety of buyers, including sawmills in Laramie, Wyo., and homebuilders in Fort Collins. Crisler did not disclose how much money the timber sale would generate.
Last year, most of the trees went to mills in Silt, Crisler said. This spring, Ski Corp. will have twice as many trees to sell.
"We doubled our crew this year," Crisler said. "We're just trying to protect our assets up here. People want to come to Steamboat and ski in the trees; they want to be in nice, forested areas."
Bark beetle battle
In the 1997 Routt Divide Blowdown on Buffalo Pass, winds exceeding 120 mph knocked down more than 4 million trees on 13,000 acres of Routt National Forest. Spruce beetles pounced on the fallen, weakened trees, gorging on the buffet and multiplying exponentially before moving on to healthy, upright trees.
But that is only half of the bark beetle story, a Forest Service spokeswoman said this week.
"We have two separate things going on here," Diann Ritschard said. "In 1997, the blowdown did trigger a spruce beetle epidemic. However, that epidemic is pretty much over with. The drought that we've had for seven or so years has triggered the mountain pine beetle epidemic we're seeing now. When there's an extended drought, the trees get weak."
Bark beetles burrow into the interior, cambium layer of tall, mature pine trees, feeding on the tree while cutting off its circulation systems for water and nutrients. It's a process similar to clogging a human artery or windpipe and essentially strangling the tree. Thousands of beetles infest a tree at the same time. Each beetle is no larger than a grain of rice.
"You'll see a big, healthy pine tree with holes all up and down it," said North Routt rancher Don Markley, who lives on 40 acres northeast of Clark and said he has noticed the beetles spreading for several years. "We lead pack trips up by North Lake -- all the trees there are dead. It's going to affect the landscape big time."
Forest workers have fought to control the beetles since the late 1990s with a variety of methods including controlled burns, timber sales, insecticide sprays and "cutting and peeling" individual trees.
"What we're seeing is a totally natural process -- it's been going on for many, many thousands of years," Ritschard said. "But when we have humans in the picture, we don't like to see our forests turn red and brown and burn up; particularly when they're near our houses."
Andy Cadenhead, a supervisory forester for Routt National Forest, is responsible for timber and beetle management in the Steamboat area. He said that on remote portions of the ski area, forest workers are trying experimental techniques that involve spraying small groups of non-infested trees with insecticides, then using a scented attractant to draw beetles to the sprayed trees.
"That piney smell is the first thing that attracts beetles to an area," Cadenhead said. Workers also are using chemical replicas of pheromones produced by the beetles to attract them to the trees.
Cadenhead said collaborations such as the Northern Colorado Bark Beetle Cooper--ative, which involves five ski area counties, including Routt County, are key to limiting the spread of beetles.
"When we coordinate our efforts, we are much more successful than when we try to act alone," Cadenhead said.
Beetles goring Gore Pass
This summer, forest workers in the Yampa Ranger District will begin a project to manage bark beetles on Gore Pass, along Routt County Road 134 between Kremmling and Toponas.
Ritschard said the Rock Creek Integrated Management Project will treat 15,000 acres on Gore Pass largely by cutting down trees in thickly infested areas.
"What we're trying to do is take out the dead trees and prevent the potential for a really large wildfire," she said, referring to the flammable result of beetle infestations.
By leaving wide swaths of dead trees in their wake, bark beetles provide acres of fuel for wildfires that can be touched off by a single strike of lightning.
Yampa District Ranger Oscar Martinez received final approval for the project April 12.
U.S. Sens. Ken Salazar, a Democrat, and Wayne Allard, a Republican, both of Colorado, have introduced legislation to increase funding for bark beetle management in the state. Allard's "Headwaters Protection and Restoration Act," or Senate Bill 2604, was introduced April 7 and would provide $227 million for managing bark beetles, wildfires and floods in Colorado. According to the bill, the money also would fund "reinvigorating the forest products industry" and would "encourage the use of biomass fuels for energy" in the state.
The act is awaiting action from the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Salazar has in----troduced the "Rocky Moun--tain Forest Insect Response En----hancement and Support Act," or FIRES, a companion bill to legislation introduced in the House of Representatives by Democratic U.S. Reps. Mark Udall and John Salazar, Ken Salazar's brother.
The FIRES Act would give more than $30 million during the next three years to beetle and wildfire management in Colorado, to address what Ken Salazar has called "a perfect storm" for wildfires this summer. That act also is awaiting action from the energy committee.
Salazar, a freshman senator, also plans to offer an amendment to this year's Emergency Supplemental budget to address funding for beetle and wildfire management. That amendment would grant $30 million.
Republican state Sen. Jack Taylor, a Steamboat Springs resident, is a vocal advocate of managing bark beetles. His Senate Bill 96 would increase access to emergency funding for wildfire crews. The state Senate approved the bill April 21. Senate Bill 96 is awaiting action from the House Appropriations Committee, which acts on bills that involve financial adjustments.
The vast amounts of money proposed to manage bark beetles do not appeal to everyone. Rich Levy, president of the local Sierra Club chapter, said it is "futile" to combat a natural occurrence that is not going away, no matter how much money is spent.
Loggers at Steamboat Ski Area began work April 17, a week and a day after the resort closed for the season.
"We took 23 trees out of here yesterday," logger Lynn Harding said Thursday, standing in snow on an access trail near Vagabond ski trail. Harding owns LNH Wood Service in Yampa, which has been hired by Ski Corp. to remove trees from the resort.
"Down around the corner, there's another 40 (trees) or so waiting for us," Harding said.
Crisler said 14 workers are involved in logging at the ski area. It's a job that requires operating chain saws while standing in uncertain snow, often on steep slopes in densely forested areas.
"It can be dangerous, and it's not easy work," Crisler said. "But we do lots of training."
Christian Talli works for Ski Corp. Driving a skidder Thursday morning on a cutting site near Jess' Cut-Off ski trail, Talli unearthed a large rock from the snow as he hauled a tree up a steep slope.
"Let them know about that rock," Crisler said, pointing to workers down the slope. "It could be a roller."
Harding said he has seen beetles across Routt County and has taken 800 trees out of the Steamboat Lake area.
"It's good for the logging industry," Harding said. "But it's not good for the forests."
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