Some officials are calling the forest's trails these days a mouse trap.
Indeed, on Ptarmigan Trail recently, I encountered trees scattered across the three miles I hiked. I clambered up and over when I could, but burly branches kept me from passing through and forced me around on occasion.
There were times the breeze picked up, and I gazed up at the swaying lodgepole forest, locating the dead trees among the grove. I hastened my pace and headed for the aspen groves not far ahead to take shelter in case one spindly pine crashed down on me.
High winds this winter have blown down trees in nearly every area of the forest, creating hiking obstacles as well as increased hazards from those trees still standing.
Lodgepole pine stands are the most risky to pass through, forest service officials say.
"They are very shallow-rooted anyway," White River National Forest fire management officer Ross Wilmore said. "Lodgepole pines typically exist in fairly dense stands. They provide each other with a certain amount of protection from the wind."
Any opening means they're vulnerable to winds - even slight breezes - without having adapted to the stress.
"Typically the trees that are more exposed to the wind are more apt to blow down because they aren't wind-firm," Wilmore said. "They haven't had the stress placed on their roots. They're not able to individually adapt."
The death rate of trees due to the mountain pine beetle means more trees are simply weary of standing. When they die, there's still moisture inside, and in the snowpack at the base.
"The bases of the trees begin to rot out, which weakens them a little bit," Wilmore said. "They're breaking at the base because they're rotten. With a little bit of wind, they can come over without warning."
He warned that just a slight breeze could be enough to topple a standing dead tree.
The Forest Service's Dillon Ranger District staff plans to take care of trees blocking trails, but not until roughly June 1, when volunteer and grant-funded crews are trained.
Bark beetle earmark dollars from the Rocky Mountain Regional Office is funding a four-person crew that will be at work all summer cutting trees off trails. They wield crosscut saws in wilderness and chainsaws in the rest of the forest. They start May 20 and work at least through Sept. 30, district recreation staff officer Ken Waugh said.
"We also have a wilderness ranger and two volunteers to patrol the wilderness. They carry small hand saws to cut the smaller trees out," Waugh said. The wilderness ranger is a temporary employee who also works from mid-May to the end of September. The volunteers start in June and are funded by the National Forest Foundation's Ski Conservation Fund, which generates $1 per lift ticket and room rental.
In addition, the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps is sending a crosscut crew to work in the wilderness for two weeks. Funded by the same Ski Conservation Fund, the group comes through each year to help staff with work that needs to be done in the short summer season.
Waugh noted that he relies on the public to notify Dillon Ranger District staff of their observations while on the trail. Hikers, mountain bikers, and motorized vehicle users should note the location, the trail, the tree's diameter and the number of trees down and report that information to the Dillon Ranger District office in Silverthorne. They are available by phone at (970) 468-5400.
"More time has passed so more rot has occurred (among beetle-killed trees), so trees are less stable," Waugh said. "We had more wind so that's what's bringing the trees down."
In addition to the safety protocol for forest travelers posted at trailheads, online and at the Dillon Ranger District office, Waugh said it's also important for forest users to try to protect the trails.
"When a tree is down, a new trail is created around the tree. If there's no safe way to get over the tree, then that's what people are going to do," he said. "It leaves a scar, even over a short period of time."
He doesn't expect a huge number of trails to be created in the next month-and-a-half before crews can get in to remove trees, but there will be some impact. When crews do get out to remove the trees, they will also close and rehab the user-created trail spur.
"Walking off the trail, especially if you're stepping on something green, there can be an impact," Waugh said, suggesting that moving from rock to rock can be a better alternative to damaging High Country greenery.
Jackstraw falling on the forest floor is drying out and becoming more flammable.
It's those areas Wilmore has his eyes on, where a fire could break out fast and heavy, with all the ground fuels in place.
Forest users should be more careful than usual with the fire they introduce to the system, whether it's with a campfire or by smoking.
"They need to be really sure that if they have a campfire going, that it's drowned and stirred. Put a hand in to be sure all the ashes are cold and out. Don't just think that because you're not seeing smoke or flame that it's out," Wilmore said.
He said he looks at satellite imagery to pinpoint areas with a high degree of blowdown, as well as areas where forest cover is evolving from timber to grass growth. Both are becoming more widespread in Summit County. He expects to update his maps soon with another look at the forest now that winter blowdown events have changed the outlook.
"The forest is becoming more susceptible because of the evolution of the fuel bed on the ground's surface," Wilmore said. "I evaluate it every year, and it's been evolving very quickly."
The heart of the problem is in Willow Creek, near Silverthorne. Blowdown and grass problems have emanated from there. Today, Wilmore has his eyes trained on the eastern edges of Eagles Nest Wilderness, Tenderfoot Mountain and areas in Breckenridge near the Golden Horseshoe.
"There are areas that I'm worried less about," he added, explaining that spruce forests are largely unaffected. "The entire county isn't blown down."