Vail Slicing into the trunk of a pine with a hatchet, Cal Wettstein shaves off a piece of bark. He’s looking for one of the beetles that has killed most of the lodgepole pines in this grove off Red Sandstone Road north of Vail.
Today, he’s not having any luck, but apparently this isn’t the first time a newspaper reporter has asked Wettstein for help spotting the bark beetle during his 35 years with the U.S. Forest Service.
“I thought I would go get a career as a hand model after that but I didn’t get any calls,” he said.
His modeling career failed to flourish, but a little over a year ago, Wettstein, 58, took on a gig no less prestigious. He’s the “incident commander” for the bark beetle response on 3.6 million acres of national forest in northern Colorado and southeast Wyoming, including the White River National Forest in Eagle County. If the title has a military ring to it, that’s probably because Wettstein, with his neat crew cut and straight-shooter manner of speaking, spends his time staring down an enemy of sorts.
Bumping up Red Sandstone Road in a truck, he notices several pines in various stages of beetle infestation that had previously fallen over, narrowly missing the road.
“This is the busiest road on the White River National Forest,” he said.
Dead trees remain standing along the road, threatening to fall on the many motorists and cyclists who frequent the gravel route to Piney Lake. “You can see, all these trees have a target,” Wettstein said.
The U.S. Forest Service recently funneled an extra $40 million into the bark beetle response in Colorado and Wyoming. Wettstein said the funds have been going toward cutting down the most dangerous trees the beetle has killed — those that could fall on roads, campgrounds and recreation sites.
“Our biggest concern right now is the falling tree hazard,” he said. “We’ve got some pretty good research that shows trees will start to fall within three to five years after they’re killed by the beetle, and then most trees will be on the ground within 14 years.”
The bark beetle epidemic struck Eagle County in 2000, so some trees have already been dead for 10 years, he said.
“We’re seeing an increasing number of trees falling,” Wettstein said.
This summer there are millions of beetle-killed trees in Eagle County, he estimates.
“In the eastern part of the county here, I think the beetle are into about all the lodge pole that’s here,” he said. “It is slowly spreading to the southwest.”
Those dead trees are dangerous for another reason: They act as kindling. Right now, about 75 percent of the beetle-killed trees locally are in the rusty red phase of death, with their needles still attached, Wettstein estimates. Those trees are ripe for burning, but the highest danger will come decades from now, when all of the lodge pole pines have fallen over and create a sort of flammable carpet along the forest floor.
“The real danger is out several decades when you’ll get really high intensity wildfires that are really hard to control,” Wettstein said.
Wildfires are part of the forest’s natural cycle, and forest officials say there’s little they can do to completely stop the beetle-killed trees from burning.
“In reality we’re only going to be able to treat 20 or 25 percent of this,” Wettstein said. “That’s why we’re doing really focused fuel reduction projects, in close to communities, and around infrastructure, ski areas, along roads.
“There will be big fires,” he added. “What we’re trying to do is set up a situation where it’s not as disruptive to live as we know it.”
Some experts speculate that the region’s last big fires struck about 150 years ago, Wettstein said. Since then, settlement in the area and the addition of two popular ski resorts have complicated the natural cycle of trees burning and regenerating. And, while the bark beetle has been always been around, droughts in 2000 to 2002 left the pines weak and vulnerable to infestation. No relief has come in the form of early winter cold snaps that could kill the beetle’s larvae.
The beetle isn’t done munching on local trees.
“We’re not going to see this epidemic stop anytime soon,” Wettstein said. “Probably what will stop it is when all the trees are dead.”
The critters recently emerged from inside the trees to begin their annual flight to new trees, several weeks earlier than they normally start flying, Wettstein said. Although the beetle is just the size of a grain of rice, it can handily take down a towering pine. The beetle burrows into the tree and lays eggs. The larvae damage the bark,