Summit County, CO, USA — It is not often you see several TV cameras mixed with additional newspaper cameras all packed together along a narrow dirt trail in the forest.
But it is not often you have a collection of experts in the field of mountain bark beetle leading a tour through a red sea of infested dead pine trees in Summit County.
Ryan Bidwell with the Wilderness Group says it is all part of an expedition set up by the Southern Conservation Alliance to hear information about bark beetle and its effects on the Colorado high country.
“Sort of get different perspectives with what’s going on in Colorado’s forests,” said Bidwell.
When it comes to the science of bark beetle, how they spread, why they spread and what impact they have on fire danger, there are as many opinions as dead red trees.
Some experts, like Eagle County Emergency Manager Barry Smith, say the number of dead trees means an increase in fire danger.
“Right now, these trees you see around with the red needles on them are pretty flammable. They’ll ignite similar to gasoline,” said Smith.
On the other side of the fence is Dominik Kulakowski, a professor at Clark University. He says if you think fire danger is the bark beetle’s fault you would be wrong.
“Outbreaks of bark beetle have either no influence on the occurrence of forest fires or have a very minor influence. So we’re kind of barking up the wrong tree,” said Kulakowski.
He says drought conditions influence fire danger with or without the red trees.
“It’s climate, not mountain pine beetle,” said Kulakowski.
Either way, there is one path all the experts seem to be heading down: fire danger is a problem in places like Grand, Eagle and Summit Counties.
Smith says protecting property starts at home, with people cutting dry trees and vegetation away from their property.
“We can’t physically put a fire truck in every driveway when there’s a major forest fire going on,” said Smith.
Others feel more has to be done to rid entire communities of dead pine trees.
“We can take the resources we have and try to protect important places, places like sub-divisions, places like ski areas or community parks or infrastructure,” said Bidwell.
Whatever the cause, solution and eventual outcome of the bark beetle infestation, another detail all the experts agree on is that in the coming decades, reporters lugging cameras on tours in the mountains will see a much different looking forest.
“We’re going to have to get used to a different way the landscape looks,” said Kulakowski.