Dead trees cause many dangers

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Charred lodgepole pines stand on a hillside above the New Fork Lakes in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

At Rockin's River Resort north of Prince George, British Columbia, Horst Schulz is experiencing a consequence not often associated with the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

"The flooding has gotten tremendous now that all the pine are dead," Schulz said. "I had to take a boat to the house for about a week this year."

Schulz said high water forced him to push his campground's opening date back an entire month this year, from May 15 to June 15.

"There is an issue with hydrology," said Jim Snetsinger, British Columbia's chief forester. "These trees aren't there any longer to suck up water from the ground. Where does it go?"

Hydrology joins other smaller concerns such as water quality and blocked accesses in looking at the fallout from the North American West's massive mountain pine beetle epidemic.

With 33.3 million acres already impacted by the mountain pine beetle in British Columbia, Snetsinger is estimating it will be 10 to 15 years before the province's hydro balance returns. Nonetheless, Snetsinger said there are too many other factors at play to blame the type of increased runoffs Schulz experienced on the pine beetle alone.

Andy Cadenhead expects similar impacts in Colorado. Of particular concern are slides and other mass soil movements that may occur when the ground is saturated with water formerly absorbed by lodgepole pine trees.

"One thing that appears to be happening was while these trees were green, they were taking up an incredible amount of water," said Cadenhead, a Steamboat Springs-based supervisory forester with the U.S. Forest Service. "We'll see the water table essentially rise in the forest. If we get wet years, it will certainly increase our flooding potential."

Like Snetsinger, Cadenhead said flooding is a minor concern when considering the impacts of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Another risk is falling trees, not just ones that could hit people, but also ones that could block roads and trails.

"I think it's safe to say there's a time period of about 15 years where most of the trees are going to come down," Cadenhead said.

Water quality also is a concern, Cadenhead said, and one that increases substantially if and when there is a fire. The potential for sediment and ash to enter watersheds increases substantially after a fire. Officials often cite the 2002 Hayman Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado history, whose impacts on water quality still are being dealt with.

"When a fire burns through an area really hot," said Nan Stinson, a Pinedale, Wyo.-based spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, "basically all the stuff you see under our feet that holds the topsoil in place is gone."

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