Losing the beetle war | SteamboatToday.com

Losing the beetle war

Ski area, Forest Service end mitigation efforts

Mike McCollum

— Splashes of red and gray emerge from a large canvas of green along Ted’s Ridge at the Steamboat Ski Area.

The colors act as a before-and-after warning to impacts of the mountain pine beetle, a grain-of-rice-sized insect that federal and state officials predict will kill all of Colorado’s mature lodgepole pine forests within three to five years.

Ski area and Routt National Forest officials hoped to save patches of pines along scenic areas, in campgrounds and throughout the ski area. Those efforts have been largely abandoned as strategies to manage the beetle epidemic proved ineffective.

Doug Allen, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.’s vice president of mountain operations, said Ski Corp. and U.S. Forest Service officials collaboratively began proactive efforts to combat the beetle infestation more than 10 years ago.

“There was a very significant effort where we treated lodgepole pine that were infected,” he said. “We cut, sprayed, pealed and removed lodgepoles from infected stands. Last year, the (Forest Service) told us the party was over. The treatments were no longer effective.”

Healthy, green pine needles turn red as the beetle infests the inner layers of bark, cutting off water and nutrients to the tree. As the red needles fall, the dead, bare pine trees add one more gray addition to the landscape.

Recommended Stories For You

In January, the Forest Service announced that pine beetles killed lodgepole pines covering 500,000 acres in 2007, bringing the total infestation to more than 1.5 million acres – nearly all of Colorado’s lodgepole forests.

As Ski Corp. officials move from a mitigation strategy with the hope of saving stands of lodgepoles, to acknowledging that few mature pines will survive, Allen said it’s clear that the future of the ski area will be impacted by infestation.

“Those trail designations, designed in the mid-’60s, may not be corridors anymore,” he said. “There will be new runs where pines used to be. There will be wider runs. The mountain will look different and we are still in the process of determining what opportunities there are to improve skiing and traffic flow in those areas with large patches of lodgepoles.”

A total loss

Allen said Ski Corp. officials may look to other ski areas for cues on how to proceed in the aftermath of losing almost every pine on the mountain.

At Brian Head Ski Area in southern Utah, pine beetles swept through the Wasatch Mountain Region seven years ago, decimating the area’s predominant tree, the lodgepole pine.

“We had to do, like, clear-cutting of full areas,” said Brian Head spokesman Bob Whitelaw. “What it did was make us

readjust the mountain for visitors. We created more runs, widened some others, but what hurt us is that it took away our windbreaks. The way the mountain is set up, losing the trees exposed the lifts to high wind, which causes wind closures.”

Whitelaw estimated that up to 50 percent of the pines were lost at Brian Head, and many more infected trees soon will die.

The lodgepole pine kill may not affect the Steamboat Ski Area as much as Brian Head or Summit County ski areas such as Winter Park, where there are miles of uninterrupted pine patches.

Of the 1.25 million acres in the Routt National Forest, about 350,000 – or about 20 percent – of the trees are lodgepole pines, according to supervisory forester Andy Cadenhead.

“The Steamboat Ski Area has a lot going for it with many aspens, spruces and firs,” he said. “This diversity of species that you don’t always find in Colorado will help ease the loss of so many trees. I don’t think we fully understand what the impacts will be on tourism, but our area will still be a good destination to enjoy the national forest.”

Cadenhead added that the Forest Service virtually halted all cooperation with Ski Corp. after Intrawest purchased the ski area last year.

“We were fighting a losing battle and our (federal) funding dropped to virtually nothing,” he said. “With the new change in ownership at the ski area, there’s a pause as they kind of assess what they bought and how they want to proceed.”

Allen said Ski Corp. officials are focusing on removing hazardous trees that pose a danger to skiers.

“Right now the prescription is removing dead trees that could fall on lifts,” he said. “It makes no difference whether they are lodgepole or any other tree in the forest. : We are not planning any major timber removal like we have in previous summers. I think that sometime next year, we’ll come up with a plan on how to move forward.”

Political action

U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D- Eldorado Springs, announced a trio of bills Thursday to help reduce the fire and flood danger posed due to the pine beetle epidemic. The congressman, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat this year, said fighting the pine beetles is futile.

“We are not going to stop Mother Nature – and the beetles are part of Mother Nature – unless we get some very cold winters,” he said. “We can’t stop the beetle, but we can do everything we can to stop the effects of the beetle before our forests turn into widespread wildfires.”

House Resolution 5216 amends the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 to classify beetle-infected trees as “renewable biomass.” The bill encourages incentives for private companies to burn trees for electricity.

“We have really worked to make sure incentives are focused and narrow and about reducing fuel levels, not creating a new logging industry,” Udall said. “It’s not driven to cut down trees just to cut down trees. It’s about mitigating fire risks.”

Colorado forests may have up to 1.5 million dead lodgepole pines lying on the ground in the next five years, creating fuel to feed potentially massive wildfires.

House Resolution 5218, also known as the Fire Safe Community Act, focuses on additional steps to help Colorado communities reduce potential damage from wildfires. The bill would grant the Federal Emergency Management Agency $25 million to help safeguard communities affected by the beetle epidemic.

Udall also plans to introduce the Colorado Forest Insect Emergency Response Act, which aims to streamline tree removal by excluding beetle-infested forests from federal restrictions on forest thinning.

He said the tree-thinning projects will focus on areas within 1.5 miles of a community’s urban-wildlife interface.

“It’s not about going all over the state to uninhabited areas to thin fuel loads,” he said. “It’s going to areas that pose the most danger to communities and water supplies.”

Udall also said that while dead trees could hurt the state’s tourism industry, there are no proposed funds earmarked for communities, such as ski towns, that may face financial difficulties due to the loss of tourism dollars.

“If we prevent catastrophic wildfires, then I’m confident we will support the tourism industry,” he said. “We have to be creatively thinking ahead for those who come to Colorado to fish, ski and hunt.”

The next forest

John Twitchell, district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, said a decade-long drought, along with the forest’s natural cycle of thinning itself of older trees, contributed to the recent beetle epidemic.

“This is killing the small landowner, who saw their pines as an asset and now have them as a liability,” he said. “They have to have them cut down and hauled away.”

Twitchell noted that healthy lodgepole saplings will one day fill the forest again. In the meantime, homeowners should clear dead trees from areas around homes to help mitigate forest fires.

“Homeowners come up here and think the forest behind their home is a snapshot in time,” he said. “It’s not, and once their anger and denial type of reactions cool off, it’s time to sit down and think, ‘How are we going to deal with this.'”

The beetles will be gone in about five years, Twitchell said, after the insects eat themselves out of house and home.

“This is a dramatic change, but the forest is always changing,” he said. “There are lots of young baby lodgepole coming up. It’s time to start thinking about the next forest.”

At the Steamboat Ski Area, that next forest may look a little like the areas around Ted’s Ridge – wide-open powder areas, pocketed by firs and aspens.

– To reach Mike McCollum, call 871-4208 or e-mail mmccollum@steamboatpilot.com