SUMMIT COUNTY - About the same time Vail Resorts announced it will partner with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Forest Foundation to tackle a major restoration project in the scarred Hayman fire area, the company's two local resorts started taking steps to address forest health issues on the slopes of their ski mountains.
Keystone completed a vegetation management plan in April, said Joe Foreman, winter sports ranger for the Dillon District of the U.S. Forest Service. The resource plan is a required part of the resort's permit with the agency and has to be updated on a regular basis.
"It's certainly not as big an issue at Breckenridge," Foreman said. The beetle infestation moved into the Keystone area much faster. Breckenridge has been spared the worst so far, possibly because of its higher elevation and the fact that the lodgepole is mixed with other conifers at the higher elevations of the resort, Foreman said.
Breckenridge ski area is just getting started on its vegetation management plan.
Breckenridge chief operating officer Pat Campbell said the resort will begin working with the Forest Service next week on a similar plan for that ski area, updating the 2002 version of plan.
"That's the first step in a process to identify prescriptions to work," Campbell said. Specific projects like logging some areas would still be subject to more environmental studies, Campbell added. Although the pine beetle infestation has spread widely across Summit County, Campbell said it's taken longer for tree-killing bugs to move into the ski area.
Foreman said the 2002 resource plan for Breckenridge is outdated, as it was completed before the scale of the pine beetle epidemic was evident.
This summer, both resorts focused on cutting down hazardous dead trees that could fall on ski trails or lifts. That type of work is a routine part of summer operations at the resort, but increasing numbers of beetle-killed trees has required more focus in that area. Similarly, the Forest Service this summer worked to eliminate hazard trees from local trail heads and campgrounds.
Foreman said the Keystone plan breaks down the ski area terrain into detailed sections showing the status of timber and the smaller shrubs and younger trees under the forest canopy.
"The next step is to sit down with forest health specialists and figure out how to tackle specific areas to reach "desired future conditions," Foreman said.
There will different management options for different parts of the resort. In areas where there is no skier access, the resort and the agency could choose to let nature run its course, but other areas could require intensive treatment.
The lodgepoles lining the sides of trails help shelter the ski terrain from wind and sun. In some areas, it could be critical to try to spur re-growth as fast as possible, "to help maintain the desired character of the ski terrain," according to Foreman. Identifying areas where there already is good regeneration could become an important priority, he added.
Specific data pinpointing the extent of the pine beetle infestation across the two resorts was not available. Foreman said the recently completed Keystone study includes some of that information, but the agency hasn't yet had a chance to crunch the numbers and quantify how many acres of trees have been killed and what percentage of the ski area's terrain that includes.
The planned Breckenridge study will yield similar information. Foreman said some of the field work could still be done this fall and winter, but the analysis of the understory has to be done during the snow-free season, so the work will probably extend into next summer. He said there was no set deadline for completion of the study.