Schroder: Pine beetle the modern-day big burn

Caddie Nath
summit daily news
Special to the Daily/Jen Miller

SAPPHIRE POINT – In 1910, when the legendary wildfire that inspired Timothy Egan’s “The Big Burn” ignited in the western United States, searing three million acres, it was nature’s way of cleaning up the forest, removing older trees and making way for new growth.

But in the century since that historic blaze, humans have been suppressing and attempting to prevent wildfire. Local CSU Extension officer Dan Schroder theorizes the Earth found another way to clean house: the mountain pine beetle.

“The pine beetle may very well be the wildfire that we’ve been suppressing for 100 years,” Schroder said. “Nature is going to come out in the end.”

Standing at Sapphire Point atop Swan Mountain, participants in the last event in the Summit Reads series on “The Big Burn” had an opportunity to survey Mother Nature’s handy work during Saturday’s informational hike, hosted by Schroder, who called the hike “forestry in the field.”

Today’s lodgepole forests, which have been ravaged by the mountain pine beetle, are the product of human logging activity in the late 19th century. When the forest was clear-cut, lodgepole was the most successful species to regenerate. But without any species or age diversification in the new forest, the effects of the mountain pine beetle were both massive and widespread, Schroder said.

Now, as forest health initiatives get efforts under way to clear out the dead trees, officials are working to ensure that different species are planted.

Saturday’s talk focused on the bigger picture of forest health, leveraging Sapphire Point as a vantage point for a bigger picture of Summit County, overlooking Dillon Reservoir and the Tenmile Range.

Schroder covered topics from anthropology to water rights and watersheds to species identification during the two-hour nature hike.

Participants also had an opportunity to try their hand at some forestry techniques themselves, identifying different species of evergreen and aging trees by taking samples.

The hike wrapped up a series of events, including book discussions, panels and a poster contest constructed around “The Big Burn’s” key themes: wildfire and the birth of the U.S. Forest Service.

The series was a collaboration between Rotary Club of Summit County, Summit County Libraries, the Summit Daily News and other partners.

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