Saws needed to make forest stands resilient |

Saws needed to make forest stands resilient

Only in mountain towns can you find yourself at eye-level with a passing plane. Karen and John Olsen learned this lesson when they hiked along the Continental Divide earlier this summer.
John Olsen / special to the daily |

GUNNISON, Colo. – With not much left to feed on, the mountain bark beetles of northern Colorado have been faltering the last few years. But spruce trees in south-central Colorado have been getting hit hard.

Foresters estimate 30 percent mortality of spruce trees on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests.

“What we’re really facing is a natural process exacerbated by all the droughts we’ve had,” said Scott Armentrout, the forest supervisor.

In one area of the San Juan Mountains, near Lake City, all spruce trees larger than 3 inches in diameter have been attacked.

In response, the Forest Service plans to “treat” up to 120,000 acres during roughly the next decade. In most cases, the agency “treats” forests by cutting trees, sometimes in clear cuts but also in techniques such as shelter cuts. But agency spokeswoman Lee Ann Loupe points out that at high-use locations, such as near campgrounds and around ski areas, the agency has used pheromones, or sexual attractants, to draw bark beetles and then applied pesticides to kill them.

Beetle epidemics are nothing new. Scientists don’t have the techniques to document beetle infestations before American settlement of the West. That leaves just a brief recorded history. Even so, there have been scourges before.

In the late 1930s, for example, a wind storm blew spruce trees down on the Flat Tops between Glenwood Springs and Steamboat Springs. Bark beetles took their time but by the late 1940s were proliferating. Adopting militaristic jargon, the Forest Service declared war. Newspapers, too, urged eradication of the enemy.

The agency recruited Navajos, what used to be called “bums” from Denver, and also recent college graduates to dump pesticides on trees. As more pitched battles were being laid in 1951, reports began trickling in: The beetles had disappeared. In February the previous winter, it had gotten cold – real cold: 56 degrees below zero Fahrenheit in Eagle, located west of the future Vail. If not that cold, it stayed plenty cold for a couple of weeks.

Those spruce trees preserved well, even when dead, and the snags were harvested off the Flat Tops well into the 1990s for use as logs in houses.

In the case of spruce in southern Colorado, the spread began from the Weminuche area of the San Juan Mountains in the early 2000s, says Bob Cain, regional entomologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado. He attributes the cause to a combination of drought and blown-down trees.

The epidemic is much in evidence on Wolf Creek Pass, where most trees, once forest green, now gray, have died. The beetles have been migrating north and east, but not so much west to places like Durango and Telluride, says Cain.

Can the spruce beetle be stamped out? Well, yes — and no. Cain and other foresters point out that areas that have been cut in the past now look green, as the younger trees are better able to withstand the beetles.

But what the Forest Service understands now, which it didn’t 65 years ago, is that beetle infestations are just too broad and natural to try to suppress them.

George Sibley, an author and resident of the Crested Butte-Gunnison area since 1967, sees several upsides to the spruce epidemic, including reduced water needs.

“A lot of the beetle-kill places are projected to come back as aspen stands, and I consider that a plus. According to my Forest Service friends, aspens use less water over the course of a year, even though when they are in leaf they use more; most of the year they are leafless and are not ‘drinking’ much and evapo-transpiring not at all. And — possibly a big bonus — they are not catching snow on leafy branches like the spruce and fir do, most of which sublimates directly to vapor during the cold season,” he says.

“Just because they’ve been here for a hundred-plus years doesn’t mean the spruce are the best thing that could be inhabiting the land. My Eden complex has gradually disappeared as I’ve learned more about the natural history of stuff in the West. This place has never been very well organized.”

Longer, hotter summers explain beetle epidemics

WINTER PARK, Colo. – Rising temperatures have caused the mountain bark beetles that have plagued forests from British Columbia to New Mexico, right?

Well, not exactly, Jeffry Mitton, who has been studying beetles since 1976, was in Winter Park recently, near the epicenter of the epidemic that in places has killed 80 to 90 percent of lodgepole pine trees.

Mitton said it’s not that the winters haven’t been cold enough to pare beetle populations. Instead, he said that spring has arrived six to eight weeks early. As a result, the beetles produced two generations each summer.

“Two generations instead of one means that there’s an exponential increase in the number of beetles in the forest,” Mitton said, according to an account in the Sky-Hi News. “That means there’s an exponential increase in the number of trees being attacked.”

Beetle attacks on spruce trees of south-central Colorado have recently been expanding, creating scenes at Wolf Creek Pass seen a decade ago around Winter Park. And in the American South, another species of bark beetle has been expanding its range.

“Three species of bark beetles all doing similar things – it’s all related to temperatures,” Mitton said.

“I really think it’s summer temperatures that are hurting them more than the (absence of) winter cold,” he said.

Mitton observed that in the last 25 years the mountain bark beetles have climbed 2,000 feet above their previous range in Colorado, and they have traveled 400 miles farther north in Canada.

Epidemics in lodgepole forest typically occur on average every 60 years, he said, but not with precise regularity. He said it’s unclear how the warming climate could affect the cycles of bark beetle epidemics in the future.

But according to the Sky-Hi News, Mitton was not appalled by the forests’ decimation. Aspen can replace lodgepole stands killed by beetles.

“Yes, it’s awful that the trees died,” he said. “But hey, that’s not so bad.”

Forest thinning not a great answer to fires

JACKSON, Wyo. – With wildfires smoking up the skies, residents of Jackson Hole turned out to hear ecologist and author George Wuerthner talk about programs intended to reduce fuels on public lands.

The topic is pertinent, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide, because the Forest Service proposes to thin 1,757 acres of the local national forest and conduct managed burns on another 12,524 acres.

But Wuerthner cautioned foresters against promising too much.

“Don’t give a false impression that you’re going to have the ability to stop a severe fire,” he said. “When (a severe fire) happens, no matter what you’ve done, it’s going to go out the window, I think.

“What you have to emphasize … is how much responsibility is with the homeowners to reduce the flammability of their homes,” he said. “Because no matter what you do in that area I think under the right conditions it isn’t going to matter.” He further said that the data he has examined suggest that prescribed burning works better than thinning to forestall future fires.

Homes built after 2010 within Teton County’s wildland-urban interface are required to abide by FireWise building prescriptions, but buildings predating the regulation are exempted.

National park still big enough to get lost in

ESTES PARK, Colo. – There was a birthday party in Rocky Mountain National Park last Friday, reports the Estes Park Trail-Gazette, with a birthday cake, special guests, and everything else you would expect.

The birthday is that of the park itself, established by Congress in early 1915 and then formally dedicated in September of that year.

Among the 1,000 people who showed up for the gaiety was Mark Udall, a former U.S. senator from Colorado whose mother’s antecedents had been part of the early history of Estes Park.

“In this park, you have the freedom to get lost. You have the freedom to climb,” said Udall, a mountaineer of considerable accomplishment. “One-hundred years is a big effin’ deal.”

Reading tea leaves for the ski season

ASPEN, Colo. – Last year about 25 percent of customers at the Aspen Skiing Co.’s major ski areas, Aspen and Snowmass, were from outside the United States. The Aspen Daily News asks whether the company expects that to continue, given the strong U.S. dollar and the volatility in international financial markets.

They’re going to try, of course. The company has long been strong in South America and Australia, but has recently been expanding into China and the Middle East, the Daily News reports.

Foreign guests account for about 12 percent of skier visits in Colorado, according to Colorado Ski Country USA. Nationally, according to the Kottke end-of-season survey, international visitors were responsible for 6.2 percent of U.S. visits.

But what role will El Niño play in this upcoming winter. Patrick Byrne, of Ski Country USA, tells the Aspen newspaper that it will produce lots of snow, drawing plenty of visitors.

However, Joe Ramey, general meteorologist with the National Weather Service, tells the Vail Daily that El Niño winters generally bless southern resorts, such as Telluride, more generously. Also, he said, they have big bumps in fall and spring, but a dip in precipitation in mid-winter.

Keeping mining stuff for another century

PARK CITY, Utah – If ski towns want nothing to do with modern mining, they sure like having the artifacts lingering from the mining era. A case in point is Park City, where the first mining began in 1869.

After the mining of silver and other precious minerals at Park City petered out after World War II, downhill skiing entered the picture in the 1960s. Both the ski area formerly called Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley are located primarily on private lands once owned by mining companies. Both ski areas also have decaying buildings from that century-ago era.

But will those remnants linger? The Park Record points to both successes and failures in past years at Park City. In particular, local preservationists were infuriated in 1998 when the mining company dismantled the weathered skeleton of a mill that had been built in 1903. The demolition triggered a plan to prevent a recurrence.

But buildings can fall down on their own, as the old California Comstock mill in Park City has done in recent years. Ore bins have been receding into the earth.

Now, there seems to be new lift in preservation, and Vail Resorts, the new owner at Park City, has been getting kudos.

“Vail, actually, has been the best partner for preservation, interpretation, recognition of history,” says Sally Elliot, a former city council member. “The people that Vail brought in have been phenomenal to work with.”

Feeding bears and staring down a lion

JASPER, Alberta – A visitor to Jasper National Park pleaded ignorance when he was fined $2,500 for feeding bears.

The Jasper Fitzhugh reports that the visitor was seen approaching to within 12 feet of black bears, including cubs and presumably a sow, despite the warnings from others to keep his distance. He was then witnessed feeding a bear cub sunflower seeds.

Meanwhile, a pair of bicyclists had paused to walk along a river near the park’s eastern gate. They joked about needing a big stick. But when one of them tossed a rock into a bush after hearing a rustling sound, a mountain lion jumped out.

“It stopped maybe a metre and a half or two from Sam,” said Donald Lauder, a visitor from Australia, referring to his companion, Samantha Leer. “It was just staring at us and hissing.”

The Australians hit the cat with the stick and pelted it with rocks. The cat seemed unfazed. This went on for some time. Finally, Lauder threw a rock that grazed the cougar’s head, and it vanished into the bush.

“Cougars tend to only vocalize when in a defense situation, protecting kill sites or possibly young,” a wildlife specialist with Parks Canada told the Fitzhugh. He

visited the site and found no carcass that the lion was trying to protect, suggesting the cat was in a huff about its kittens.

Whistler survived to become a giant resort

WHISTLER, B.C. – Whistler today purrs with extraordinary success. But a lengthy analysis by a former long-time newspaper publisher in the town recounts the stumbles and plans of the resort’s early years.

Bob Barnett, writing in Pique explains that Whistler set out to become an international resort with $10.5 million in federal and provincial seed money in1978. In retrospect, it wasn’t nearly enough. In the difficult early years of the 1980s, the provincial government had to assist at several key turns.

“There has always been a perception – perhaps resentment isn’t too strong a term – among some that Whistler has been subsidized, bailed out and favored by senior levels of government,” he writes. “There is no doubt governments have played a major role in the resort’s development, and continue to benefit from its prosperity, but shrewd planning has always been key to Whistler’s success.

One key element came as a result of a tour by resort officials to Colorado. Summer business needed improvement, and based on what the Whistler delegation saw in Aspen and Vail, they needed more parks—and a means to pay for them. Colorado towns enjoy sales tax revenues. Whistler went after authority to levy taxes on hotel rooms, and got it.

The moral of the story, one source tells Pique, is that the provincial government in British Columbia fronted cash for development of the resort – but now gets major financial dividends.

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