Learn more about the mountain pine beetle in a 2008 Steamboat Pilot & Today series at SteamboatToday.com/thelaststand.
Denver Federal contractors have accelerated removal of beetle-killed trees in Rocky Mountain forests with about 100 cutting operations in progress during the past weekend.
The problem is what to do with the wood.
Dead-tree cutting across northern Colorado and southern Wyoming — to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and of dead trees falling on people — has left an estimated 170,000 piles of trees and slashed branches, U.S. Forest Service supervisors said last week. Contractors say they can’t find markets because Colorado has few mills and Canadian timber imports keep prices low.
The Forest Service plans to burn the piles. But that many fires likely would send up significant smoke. State health regulations limit the amount of burning that could be done to eliminate the tree piles.
“Probably the biggest problem is they look bad. It’s just a lot of piles,” said Cal Wettstein, commander of the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region Bark Beetle Incident Management Organization. “It’ll be difficult to get that many burned.”
Grinders may be used to dispose of some trees.
For several years, Forest Service officials have struggled to respond to the ravaging of weakened forests by mountain pine beetles. Beetle populations, which occur naturally in Rocky Mountain forests, exploded during the 1990s. Federal surveys show beetles have infested more than 4 million acres in Colorado and Wyoming.
Federal foresters who received $40 million in emergency funds from Washington initially assumed that contractors would be able to sell cut trees to timber mills near Montrose and South Fork and a government-supported pellet factory near Kremmling.
Forest managers said they’ll clear dead and dying trees from about 15,000 acres this year. “From now through November, we have sawyer crews and heavy machinery going in clearing out as much as we can,” Wettstein said.
This cutting, under federal “stewardship” contracts, is scheduled to continue at the same pace for several years.
The state health department issued 250 permits last year for tree-pile burning, air pollution control division spokesman Chris Dann said. “Smoke from these types of activities tends to be pretty localized and short term.”
Tree clearing remains controversial. Some ecologists say removing dead trees can do more harm than good, enabling the spread of invasive weeds and decreasing soil nutrients that stressed forests need to recover.
“This is a lot more trees than we have the capacity to move,” but hazards to people from fires and falling trees and to power lines establish a purpose for removal, said Frederick Smith, who leads Colorado State University’s forestry and rangeland stewardship department.
“If it’s in a place where we’re not worried about hazards and we don’t have an effective way to dispose of the trees, it would make sense to let nature take its course,” Smith said. “If you don’t have a social-hazard concern, letting them fall would probably be the better option. Let them die. Let them fall. Let them move through that natural cycle.”