The invasion is here and it doesn’t look pretty. Most of the trees in 2 million acres of Colorado forests are dead or dying. Will the forest ever be the same?
Vince White-Petteruti had seen some messed-up trails in his years as a founding member of the Wilderness Volunteers, but seldom had he seen anything like the one along the Gore Range Trail in the summer of 2007. A sudden windstorm had knocked at least 400 trees across the trail, creating a tangle of trunks and branches 6 to 8 feet high, the kind of blowdown that foresters call jackstraw. The Volunteers had come to remove these trees, but power tools aren’t allowed in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, so the crew had to labor four days with crosscut and bow saws to reopen 4 miles of trail.
Only a small percentage of those toppled trees displayed the telltale red needles that betray the ravages of mountain pine beetle, but the Gore Range blowdown nonetheless presages problems that soon will face outdoor travelers across north-central Colorado. Beetle-infected lodgepole pines now cover nearly 2 million acres in the state—an area more than seven times the size of Rocky Mountain National Park—and within a few years those dead trees will start falling over in massive numbers, creating a nightmarish tangle of dead timber that will impact Colorado skiers, hikers, hunters, and other outdoor lovers in myriad ways for decades to come.
“That blowdown replicated what will be occurring in eight to 10 years once pine beetle trees end up falling down on top of each other,” White-Petteruti says. “Land managers are going to have to ask themselves: ‘Are we even going to bother to reopen some of these trails?’ ”
The Red Death
Colorado’s pine beetle epidemic began in 1996 and has spread like a ghost fire, killing trees throughout the north-central mountains. The destruction has been especially bad in the popular skiing, hiking and mountain biking areas around Summit County, Grand Lake and Steamboat Springs. Now, it’s moving onto the east side of the Front Range.
“The epidemic will last until the beetles run out of an adequate food supply that will sustain their high populations, or until we have sufficient cold temperatures to reduce the beetle populations,” explains Joe Duda, a supervisor at the Colorado State Forest Service.
Natural denizens of Colorado, mountain pine beetles have exploded in population because of recent warm winters (which failed to kill the larvae), extended drought conditions (which weakened trees that otherwise could fight off beetles with a toxic resin) and the decline of Colorado logging, coupled with consistent forest-fire suppression (which creates homogenous, mature stands of lodgepoles that make ideal beetle chow). The female pine beetles bore into the inner bark of mature lodgepole pines and lay their eggs, which develop into larvae; the beetles carry a fungus that blocks the flow of water and nutrients up the trunk, and the hungry larvae further damage the trees. An infected tree’s needles begin to turn red about a year after the beetle attack kills the tree. By then the beetles have already abandoned their dead or dying host. Young beetles invade fresh stands of lodgepole in an annual mass flight.
With neither the financial resources nor practical means to control the plague on a wide scale, foresters and landowners must let it run its course. In most places, control efforts have been limited to cutting down small stands of infected trees or spraying healthy trees to protect visual corridors and safeguard campgrounds. Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, has spent more than $800,000 since 2006 on beetle mitigation, yet it has scarcely touched the damaged trees in the backcountry, which comprises 95 percent of the park.
For most high-country residents and visitors, the immediate impact has been visual: The sight of vast mountainsides of “nevergreens” dismays tourists and locals alike. But the danger of falling trees to property and people is no idle threat: Last October, a beetle-killed tree fell on a forester just south of Grand Lake, killing the man. Two weeks earlier, another Grand County man was hit in the back by a falling tree as he walked down a road.
Mary Ann Chambers, public affairs officer for the Rocky Mountain Region Bark Beetle Incident Management Team of the U.S. Forest Service, says 911 miles of trails in the Medicine Bow-Routt, White River and Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests lie in beetle-affected areas. Forty percent of all roads in these forests are affected. Both trails and roads could be closed periodically because of hazardous trees; in some cases they may be closed indefinitely. Nearly 20 percent of all the developed acreage—mostly campgrounds and picnic areas—in these national forests may be closed or restricted as beetle-killed trees are cut down and trucked away.
In 2008, 32 campgrounds and picnic areas in three Colorado national forests were partially or completely closed. As the beetle-kill mitigation work continues this year, many campgrounds are expected to be completely or partially closed (see sidebar). In the last 12 months, 4,000 to 5,000 dead trees have been removed from Steamboat Lake, Pearl Lake, State Forest and Golden Gate Canyon state parks; another 6,000 trees are slated for removal this year. The work may inconvenience visitors and cause crowding at the campgrounds that are still open, but the biggest impact is likely to be the unfamiliar and mildly shocking sight of acres of clear-cuts in once-pristine state parks and national forests. And don’t forget a sunshade for that picnic table: There won’t be many trees to provide shade or shelter from gusty winds.
The U.S. Forest Service in Colorado has already received $5.6 million of federal economic stimulus money for the removal of hazardous trees—and much more money is expected soon. Some of the funds will be used to employ teams of workers from the Colorado Youth Conservation Corps to clear trees from campgrounds and trails.
It’s not just hikers and campers who will be affected by the beetle plague. Ski resorts in the north-central mountains are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to clear beetle-killed trees. Winter Park has removed thousands of affected trees from its slopes since 2004, and the cutting continues. At Steamboat, the glades are growing subtly thinner as trees are removed, and trails are widening. On the one hand, such thinning could make for more accessible tree skiing. But opening up slopes may increase wind’s negative impacts on snow and lifts, and skiers may perceive more crowding at their favorite resort when once-tight tree skiing becomes more accessible through thinned forests.
At Nordic skiing resorts, millions of red pine needles on the trails have wreaked havoc with waxed skis, and more snow is drifting onto trails, forcing frequent grooming. To deal with deadfall along their trails, dude ranches have begun outfitting wranglers with saws and axes along with their lariats. The Rocky Mountain Orienteering Club has had to revise its ultra-detailed map of the Frisco Peninsula because of new logging roads and cut-down trees near the Frisco Nordic Center. Sherry Litasi, president off the club, said orienteers may soon have to stop racing at Frisco altogether if authorities end up clear-cutting substantial swaths of forest. Tigiwon Road, the standard access for climbing 14,005-foot Mt. of the Holy Cross in the northern Sawatch Range, is expected to be closed for an entire summer, possibly in 2010, to remove dead trees lining the road. And mountaineers who rely on unmaintained “user trails” to reach seldom-climbed peaks may soon find the approach has become the crux of the climb.
A Burning Question
The biggest impacts on outdoor recreation are still to come. One is the danger of major forest fires from all those dead trees. This will come in two phases. The first is right now, as millions of trees filled with dead needles increase the risk of a fast-spreading “crown fire.” After the needles fall—two to three years after a tree dies—the fire risk eases substantially, and the presence or absence of drought and wind become the overriding factors, just as they are in a healthy forest. However, says Monique Rocca, a wildland fire science professor at CSU, “The fuels on the forest floor will accumulate through time as the trees die and eventually fall over.” Fires burning this kind of fuel spread slower than crown fires, says Rocca, but, on the other hand, the presence of so many downed trees will make it hard for firefighters to move through the woods.
Apart from fire, the biggest impact on outdoor recreation is going to be the skeletons of millions of dead trees—standing and fallen. Three to seven years after trees die, their bases will begin to rot and they’ll just fall over—much faster if a wind event like the one along the Gore Range Trail strikes. “Within 15 years, 90 percent of the mature lodgepole pines in affected forests will be blown down,” says Kurt Mackes, research scientist for the Colorado State Forest and a CSU forestry professor.
These dead trees will make life miserable for many wilderness visitors. “Wildlife viewing, hunting and general recreational access to the forest will be more difficult,” says Duda. “Many trails may be closed due to the risk of falling dead trees, and this condition will exist for many years. Once the dead trees fall, they will remain on the ground for several decades.”
And if maintaining the narrow corridors of hiking and mountain biking trails is going to be tough, imagine how difficult cross-country hiking and backcountry skiing will become, once logs are scattered everywhere at waist height. Fortunately, Colorado’s best skiing is often among higher-elevation spruce-fir forests that have not been impacted severely by insects, but lower-elevation slopes may be dangerous and difficult to ski in all but the deepest snow cover.
When entire forests are downed, profound but unpredictable effects on Colorado’s snowpack are likely. Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, says, “We have discussed the beetle kill issue, but have more questions than answers. Less forest will mean more avalanche slopes, and avalanche paths may widen and lengthen as dead trees are knocked over. However, if avalanche slopes are covered with downfall, this could actually increase the stability of the snow by increasing the surface roughness. It will vary from slope to slope.”
Seeing the Forest
The beetle kill is not all bad news. Once you get used to the color, the mountainsides in beetle country are still beautiful. “It looks like the changing of the seasons back East, with the difference that it doesn’t change back,” Mackes says. In many places, the views for hikers, mountain bikers, and skiers will be better than ever as lower-elevation forests thin out. And some wildlife species will benefit. “As canopy dies and recedes, moisture and sunlight will increase on the forest floor, adding forage for elk,” Mackes explains. “Other than access issues from blowdown, the [beetle kill] may provide a boon to hunting. It will really improve elk and mule deer habitat.”
And the trees eventually will come back. Employing the sort of ecology-in-action spin you hear after forest fires, Chambers says, “You have to look at it as an ecological happening. Although it’s heart-wrenching to watch the old trees die, the trees will grow back.” Absent a large fire, younger lodgepole trees and seedlings usually survive the beetle epidemic, and new growth is already appearing in many beetle-ravaged areas. Where there were pre-existing aspen root systems, aspen groves should flourish. Soon, golden hillsides in the autumn may replace green forests above many mountain towns.
State park and national forest campgrounds, as well as private landowners and ski resorts, have begun replanting trees in damaged woodlands. The Colorado state parks are planting about 4,000 seedlings in areas where trees were removed, including aspen, spruce, and other species. “We’re trying to kick-start forest health by planting multiple kinds of trees—this should help to create a diverse, multi-age forest in our campgrounds and will help us avoid the single-species forests that have been devastated by the pine beetle epidemic,” explains Matt Schultz, the state parks’ forest management coordinator.
On a wide scale, however, a healthy post-beetles forest—multiple tree ages and species—is only possible if forest management practices change. That might mean more logging and, in particular, allowing fires to burn in wilderness areas. “I see an opportunity to maybe manage our forests to avoid these occurrences in the future, but that would take political will that I’m not sure is there,” Mackes says. “I have a hard time imagining the community of Winter Park, for example, allowing large, uncontrolled fires to burn in their backyard.”
In the meantime, hikers, skiers, and other backcountry travelers will have to make do—or move on. “My guess is that people aren’t going to want to go backpacking or hiking on some of these lands, even if the trails are cleared,” says trail volunteer White-Petteruti. “They’re going to say, ‘Man, is this ugly. And one of these babies could fall down on me.’ They’ll be asking themselves: ‘Do I want to go backpacking here or go to Aspen or some other less-affected place?’ ”