COLORADO SPRINGS - Millions of mountain pine beetles are swarming the Rocky Mountains, including Teller and El Paso counties, looking for new trees to destroy.The Colorado State Forest Service wants residents to help stop the spread of the devastating pest before the Pike and San Isabel national forests take on a brown cast like those in Summit and Grand counties."It's currently at an epidemic level," said Dave Root, state Forest Service assistant district forester in the Woodland Park District, which covers Park, Teller and El Paso counties."For every one tree untreated," he said, "next year you'll have three to four" that are infested and doomed to die.Dead trees are a sign the forest is unhealthy; they also pose a fire risk. The U.S. Forest Service is gradually thinning forests, but 100 years of fire suppression have allowed trees to overpopulate and allowed pests such as the pine beetle to spread.Trees are succumbing by the millions.Forest researchers estimate bark beetles have destroyed 7.4 million trees on 1.5 million acres of national forest lands in Colorado.Counties hit hardest are Jackson, Routt and Larimer in the north; Grand, Pitkin, Summit, Park and Chaffee in the west, and Gunnison, Saguache, Huerfano, Archuleta, San Miguel, Montrose and Ouray in the south and southwest.Sen. Wayne Allard has worked for years to secure more money for forest thinning and other measures to stem the spread of the beetle."The fire hazard created by bark beetles will impact our communities soon, and for years to come," Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar said in a statement. "Appropriate funding for forest management is vital to prevent a disaster, but unfortunately Congress has shortchanged our forests. The involvement of local organizations is critical as we look to fix this problem."The Colorado Forest Service provides guidance on how people can take the battle to their own backyards.Root explained what happens when a beetle matures and leaves the host tree for a new home."If the beetle is successful in getting underneath the bark of the tree, mama mates and burrows up the stem of the tree, laying eggs every so often," Root said. "Those are going to hatch. Over the next winter and spring, they'll go through the life cycle and be ready to emerge as new adults next July."As the bugs burrow in, they feed on the tree's "pipes" that feed it water and nutrients from the roots to the crown. The bugs also carry a fungus called blue stain that clogs the tree's arteries."The tree will stay green until next June when it's ready to break dormancy," Root said. "When it can't get water from the roots to the noodle, it's going to turn brown all of a sudden."That's why people looking for infestations should target green trees, not brown ones.If a tree is healthy enough, it will produce pitch, or sap, that gums up entries and pushes the beetle out.But some aren't healthy. Signs a tree is infested include globs of tree sap that resemble popcorn, or sawdust in bark crevices and at the tree's base."As a rough rule of thumb, the fewer and larger the pitch tubes (sap globs), the more likely the tree has survived," he said.Root said Teller and El Paso counties' trees aren't as bad off as those in Summit County, "but it's trending that direction.""The underlying problem that's causing the epidemic is we've kept fire out of the forests for a century, and the trees have gotten so thick and crowded that they're weak and susceptible to attack," he said.The best treatment, he said, is proper forest management, including thinning."With thousands of acres in the forest system, they're not going to be thinned anytime soon," he said, "so we're not going to see these bugs disappear overnight."The Government Accountability Office, which investigates issues on behalf of Congress, has urged the Forest Service and Interior Department for at least seven years to develop a national plan showing how they will accomplish their thinning task, how long it will take and how much it will cost.
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