USA–– A look across the Colorado Rocky Mountain landscape reveals forests turning a curious shade of red a shade not marked by a change of season but one that exposes the forest’s deteriorating health.
The mountain pine beetle epidemic has taken its toll on millions of acres of trees since the late 1990s, with the bugs’ wrath evidenced locally over the past decade or so. Cal Wettstein, the U.S. Forest Service incident commander with the Rocky Mountain division of the Beetle Incident Management Organization, said the beetles are basically running out of food now because they’ve killed most of the lodgepole pines already but the epidemic isn’t over.
They’re continuing to kill trees, just not at the rate they did, Wettstein said. Even though the bug is starting to dwindle, we still have millions of dead trees.
Even though beetles are a part of the natural forest cycle, the latest outbreak has taught foresters a lot about the need for diversified forests, meaning forests made up of different species and ages of trees.
The pine beetle was able to create such widespread devastation because much of the Rocky Mountain forests it attacked were made up of stands of trees that were both equal in age and in species old lodgepole pine trees just ready to be attacked.
We need a more varied mix of age and species, Wettstein said.
The Forest Service developed a long-term plan last year called the Western Bark Beetle Strategy, which outlines three main goals to accomplish through 2016: safety, recovery and resiliency. Safety refers to protecting the public, while recovery refers to the forest itself growing back and recovering from such widespread tree mortality. Resiliency refers to how the Forest Service manages the forest into the future to make it stronger and less susceptible to such large-scale devastation.
Fighting the beetle Wettstein has been leading the effort for the Medicine Bow-Routt, Arapaho, Roosevelt and White River national forests. That so-called incident organization is going to be disbanded, though, and the approach to managing the beetle epidemic is going to move to smaller regional levels, he said. He compares the oversight to that of a large wildfire in that an incident commander turns the oversight over to a regional commander once the situation is under better control.
Beetle and fire mitigation have already been happening at the local and regional levels since the epidemic first started, too. Eric Lovgren, the wildfire mitigation manager for Eagle County, said the county has come a long ways.
We’ve done a lot of work on the private and public side of the fence, Lovgren said.
At the county level, the concern relates to protecting people and property. This summer, Lovgren has done many home assessments as part of an effort to get homeowners to protect their properties against fire. The county encourages homeowners to create so-called defensible space zones, or areas that reduce the chance of homes igniting from flying embers.
Lovgren said the county, in cooperation with other municipalities and the Forest Service, has created many fuel-break areas and defensible space.
One of the most obvious areas is in West Vail, where large sections have been cut to provide a break between homes and the forest.
Another big project was Bellyache, which began in 2008, for upwards of 60 acres of hazard-tree removal using funds from the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and local homeowners. Similar projects have been completed or are under way on Tennessee Pass, in Red Cliff and in Vail.
We’ve got a good collaboration from the feds to the state and local agencies, as well as several private homeowners associations, Lovgren said.
The Vail Fire Department has a six-person wildland fire-mitigation crew that is continuing the effort to create defensible space around town, Fire Chief Mark Miller said.
The crew’s focus has turned to two communication sites at Dowd Junction and atop Vail Mountain for now, Miller said, because of the importance of communications during a wildland fire event.
The goal is to harden those sites to make sure they have good defensible space around them, Miller said. If there’s damage to those sites, we would be in a very difficult situation.
Collaboration The ongoing goal around the town of Vail also has been public safety. The town has worked with the Forest Service on various projects, including tree removal on Red Sandstone Road, in an effort to protect the public from falling trees.
Miller looks back to about five years ago when he thought the fire department would have a pretty good handle on our defensible space in five years.
Now, I see this program going indefinitely, Miller said. We continue to have pockets (of trees) that die here and there. We continue to have on town of Vail property trees dying and now becoming hazardous. This is just one of those projects that will just keep going and going and going.
Miller speaks highly of the Forest Service and its collaboration with his department. The two entities have partnered on many projects over the years, with more in the works. Miller said the Forest Service is set to speak at the Sept. 18 Vail Town Council meeting about upcoming fire-mitigation work.
They’re doing a ton of work, Miller said. It’s really quite impressive, actually.
Wettstein said local and regional crews have been working hard against the pine beetle outbreak for about 10 years now. Wettstein said there’s been a lot of constant support from Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in terms of funding to fight the outbreak.
The current lodgepole pine forest is about 180 years old from when it was last regenerated. The cycle has repeated as the trees matured, the beetles moved in as the initial disturbance agent, and the next step is fire, Wettstein said.
Then the forest regenerates, he said.
While the massive wildfire threat is still about 20 to 40 years out, all of the dead and falling trees do create an immediate danger for smaller-scale fires, though, Wettstein said.
Wettstein points to the Yellowstone fire back in 1988 that burned more than 1 million acres. It burned in a forest that had been killed by pine beetles back in the 1930s and 1940s, he said.
But that beetle epidemic wasn’t a total stand killing like the current Rocky Mountain epidemic, he said. The Forest Service has some time to prepare for such a large fire, though.
You can’t treat all of it. It’s very strategic, the cleaning up of the fuels situation around communities, Wettstein said. It’s a very complex situation across the West.