After the kill, Part 1: Beetle epidemic changed the face of High Country forests
This is the first in a three-part series that will run in the Summit Daily News on consecutive Saturdays.
Bill Tetlow and his wife bought a lot in the Winter Park Highlands in 1990 with dreams of building their mountain escape. He worked as a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder at the time, but after retiring, he’s embraced full-time mountain living. He drives a rugged pickup to get up the steep dirt roads to his home. His 1,300-square-foot home is set high on a hilltop, and from his deck, Tetlow can gaze at a steep valley whittled down by the Fraser River. But when Tetlow built his home in 1992, his view was hemmed in by the dense lodgepole pines covering his lot. Since then, he has witnessed firsthand the changes wrought on the landscape during the pine beetle epidemic that has consumed over 3.4 million acres of Colorado forest, and many more beyond.
“It was heartbreaking at first … you got sick about it,” he said. “Until the pine beetle came in, it was really nice forested living. Now, it’s getting used to the new reality.”
That new reality means realizing forests in the West are not static, but rather characterized by disturbance and change, from pest epidemics to wildfires to massive blowdowns. These disturbances may happen infrequently on the scale of human lifetimes, but they’ve been a driving force in forest ecosystems since long before Euro-American settlement.
change is inevitable
If mountain residents hope to keep building their homes and towns along the wildland-urban interface, they must understand that sudden, drastic change is inevitable and prepare their own properties as best they can. And if Coloradans wish to continue reaping the benefits of forests, including recreation opportunities and a source of precious water in the arid West, they must take an active role in responding to disturbances and protecting the landscape. The pine beetle’s sweep in Colorado’s western mountains combined with the devastating Front Range wildfires of the last decade have captured the attention of individuals as well as federal, state and local governmental agencies. These disturbances have no regard for boundaries between public and private lands. In the new reality, all interests must work together through partnerships to respond to disaster and protect the landscape supporting lives and livelihoods.
With the passage of the beetle tsunami, both eyes and views are opening to see another perspective of the epidemic.
Numerous studies following the destructive 2002 Hayman fire and beetle onset have shown that the link between wildfires and beetle kill is dubious at best.
In fact, beetle kill may be nature’s way of preventing massive fires.
It helps thin lodgepole, which like to grow in dense stands. It reduces the amount of fuels in forest canopies when the pines die and drop their needles.
“Pine beetles outbreaks are not an exotic thing that occurs, they’re part of the natural system,” said Craig Magwire, a district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service. He’s worked to mitigate the pine beetle fallout since the first signs of an epidemic in Grand County.
But while pest outbreaks are normal, what makes the current epidemic unusual is its scope, wiping out virtually every mature lodgepole in western Colorado’s forested landscape. And while the link between wildfire danger and massive stands of insect-ravaged trees is still the subject of debate among scientists, the epidemics share a common cause. Colorado’s recent record-breaking wildfires and unprecedented beetle kill were both fueled by drought.
Drought weakens trees’ natural pest defenses. And drought leads to dry conditions and dangerous fire risks. Colorado’s long dry spell through the 1990s and 2000s created a perfect storm for both insect outbreaks and wildfire conditions.
Grand Lake, the first residential community to be hit hard by the epidemic, added a mandatory tree removal ordinance in August 2007. They called killed trees a “public nuisance” and unlawful.
Similar ordinances were adopted in other communities. The town of Breckenridge adopted one in April 2010. The town of Winter Park adopted one in March 2012.
Motivating many of these proactive stances was fear of fire, regardless of the scientific debate on its link to increased loads of dead fuels. Anyone who’s built a backcountry campfire knows dry wood burns better than green, and for many, that common sense was enough. The dry dead trees were not only unsightly and unattractive, they were a fire risk and had to be removed.
protecting mountain communities
But in many communities, including Tetlow’s subdivision, tree removal remained voluntary. And it was costly.
“Based on the data we had from last year, it runs between $2,000 and $3,000 an acre to clear dead trees,” Tetlow said, who is currently the president of the Winter Park Highlands HOA. “Most of these lots are 2.5 to 3 acres.”
Tetlow figures he removed around 500 trees on his own property. His lot adjoins a 10-mile greenbelt along forested open space, which he also cleared. He and his homeowners association encouraged neighbors to do the same.
The Firewise Communities program, sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of Interior and the National Association of State Foresters partners with people living in wildfire-prone areas. It encourages neighbors to work together to prevent losses by clearing brush, trees and vegetation and creating defensible space.
The Firewise program was launched in 2002, with only two Colorado neighborhoods signing on. But as both the pine beetle epidemic and Colorado’s wildfires raged over the following decade, that number grew to 71. The town of Breckenridge is leading the way in Colorado’s mountain towns, with nine Firewise neighborhoods. Still, only a handful of other communities on the Western Slope have embraced the program. There are two in Grand County, a few near Edwards and a handful in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Colorado’s western mountain communities haven’t experienced the costly wildfires the Front Range has grappled with over the last decade, which might explain the Firewise lag. But as the bark beetle epidemic has shown, landscape disturbances can set in at any time and no forest is exempt from risk. At the headwaters of the Colorado River, which supplies water to Colorado and five other states, Western Slope residents play an important role not only in protecting their own mountain communities, but in protecting resources for countless other communities downstream.
In August 2013, after years of mitigation work, Tetlow’s neighborhood, Winter Park Highlands, became one of the latest to receive Firewise recognition.
Tetlow said while tree removal was expensive, the neighborhood’s efforts have improved property values and lowered insurance rates. Cleared lots cleared are more attractive in addition to being more fire safe. And to Tetlow, that’s one of the perks of this “new reality.”
“I have views I didn’t have before,” he said. “All of a sudden, I can see the river from my house. Aspens are coming in.”
It seems incentives for more proactive maintenance of fire risks on private property will continue to rise. In late September, a task force reported to Gov. John Hickenlooper with a number of recommendations for areas in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, which includes many West Slope communities. Although controversial, the recommendations likely would lead to higher taxes on WUI properties to fund future mitigation work. If adopted, the recommendations could also mean assessments of these properties resulting in reduced property values if they’re deemed to have high fire risk.
High Country dwellers aren’t new to making sacrifices in order to live among the forests and mountains they love. It often means heavy snow, subzero temperatures and slick mountain passes in the winter. For some, it means finding elusive seasonal work and scraping by during the shoulder season. And now, for most, it will mean taking a proactive stance toward forestry — property by property, neighborhood by neighborhood, and community by community.
The U.S. Forest Service is also proactively working to clear trees and protect communities through partnerships with towns, municipalities and private contractors. On an overcast day in early November, a haze of smoke rose from Tunnel Hill, between the town of Winter Park and the ski area, signaling the start of the U.S. Forest Service’s slash burning season. From a distance, it appeared to be just another fuels treatment, but it signified an important new era of partnerships between federal agencies and local governments in resource protection.
In cooperation with the town of Winter Park and Denver Water, the U.S. Forest Service removed 400 acres of green and beetle-killed pines on the hill in an effort to both protect the town and an important watershed in case of fire. Tunnel Hill is too steep to haul out the felled trees, so Forest Service crews hand-piled them in 20,000 bushels, waiting for the perfect mix of temperature, snow accumulation and low wind to burn them safely. Immediately adjacent to Tunnel Hill sit the siphons and aboveground pipe carrying water through the Continental Divide to Denver.
Because it’s such an important watershed for Denver consumers, Denver Water and the Forest Service joined in creating the “Forests to Faucets” program to remove the fire danger and its threat to water. Denver Water will spend $16.5 million on the program, with the U.S. Forest Service matching that amount over the next five years.
Magwire said the program has heightened the interest of other water providers, too, like the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District and Bureau of Reclamation, which provide West Slope water to Northeastern Colorado through the Colorado-Big Thompson project.
“That’s the chapter unfolding now, partners who want to bring money to the table, recognizing that if you’re a water provider and just focused on pipes and reservoirs, you’re missing some of the major potential threats to your system,” Magwire said.
The record-breaking wildfires of 2012 and 2013 motivated them to form the C-BT Headwaters Partnership with the state and U.S. forest services, which works to restore forest and watershed health before and after fires occur. In 2013, they began working to remove beetle-kill lodgepole at the Adams Tunnel West Portal, where a pipeline moves Colorado River water from Grand Lake to the Front Range.
This partnership also marks the first project between the U.S. Forest Service, managed by the Department of Agriculture, and its new partnership with sister agencies in the Department of Interior under the Western Watershed Enhancement Partnership. The partnership falls under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and was announced last July. While it debuted in Colorado, similar partnerships are planned throughout the West, including Arizona, Idaho and Montana.
And according to Magwire, this renewed interest in inter-agency cooperation and proactive forest management came as a result of the bark beetle’s sweep.
“The pine beetle epidemic has heightened people’s interest in good forest management,” he said. “We’re (now) at the right place for trying to reduce the potential threat of wildfire on watersheds and communities.”
But for wildfire treatments to be effective into the future, public interest must remain high in active forest management, which includes thinning stands, reducing fuel loads and removing hazardous trees.
“I think the real question for our community and society is, will we continue to be able to support the forest management necessary to be able to achieve that?” Magwire said. “It’s not something you do in a decade. Or two decades. You have to continue working at keeping your forests diverse.”
And as a local area resident, Tetlow agrees. “This is a continual ongoing effort,” he said. “At first we really liked living in the woods.”
And as those woods shift through a major transition, at least on a human timescale, “now, well, we’re getting other benefits,” he said.
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