Deb Babcock: What's up with brown evergreens?

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It's so sad to see the spreading destruction of whole hillsides of evergreens as we drive near and hike into the nearby forests.

Although, intellectually, we know this is a natural occurrence and that, long term, the beetle infestation is healthy for the wooded areas of our beautiful mountain community, most of us are unhappy to see this happen.

Although a complete regeneration of the forest might not happen during most of our lifetimes, one suggestion I will offer to those lamenting the loss of so many beautiful trees is to go into the Flattops area where a beetle kill took place in 1939 after a 1-acre blow down.

This beetle infestation lasted until 1952, when an extended cold winter killed the insects. See what the area looks like now.

A friend of ours who has lived in Steamboat for close to 40 years, Don Grant, suggested a hike to the Mandall Lakes during Labor Day weekend.

He said that when he first arrived, the area around these lakes was surrounded by bleached out snags of fir and spruce trees that had been killed by beetles.

There was no shade, no woods, just desolation.

Today, the new growth is nearly as tall as the old, dead spires, with replacement trees of the same variety that were killed.

It's beautiful up there. The woods are lush and active with wildlife as well as hikers, horseback riders, hunters and campers.

The cause of our current, local infestation in North Routt County can be traced to the Oct. 24, 1997, blow down that happened when 120 mph winds knocked down a 25-mile swath of trees inside and abutting the Mount Zirkel Wilderness.

More than 6 million trees in 20,000 acres of forest were toppled.

Beetles moved in to initially feed on the downed trees, and then started attacking healthy trees.

The other local infestation killing pine trees in other parts of Routt County is caused by Mountain Pine Beetle in a recurring natural cycle.

Besides the loss of beautiful trees, a big concern with the infestation is the danger of fire in the dry, downed woods.

The Big Fish Fire in the Flattops in 2002, for example, has been directly linked to the 1939 beetle infestation.

Fires that occur in beetle-downed trees tend to burn hotter than other fires, causing more destruction.

While there isn't a lot that can be done about the beetle problem in the national forest or the wilderness areas, homeowners can take steps to protect their evergreens from beetle infestation.

Most of the preventative measures must be taken in the Spring (and I promise to revisit this topic next April).

But, since the beetles tend to overwinter in the duff beneath evergreens, you can clean up the area beneath your trees this fall as one preventative measure.

In the spring, some measures include pruning infected branches and using insecticides before the larvae hatch.

While we shake our heads in dismay at the spread of brown evergreens, it's a cycle of life in the forest that humans cannot control.

- Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail gardeners@co.routt.co.us

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