Forest Service takes to trails in beetle aftermath
That favorite trail, jeep road or campground you visit in Colorado’s high country soon may take on a starkly different look.
The bark beetle has done more than turn some 3.5 million acres of national forest in Colorado and Wyoming from green to brown. It’s causing the U.S. Forest Service to take aggressive steps to proactively bring down dead lodgepole pines rather than wait for them to block trails and roads or even possibly fall on unsuspecting visitors.
Since the beetle outbreak, much attention has been focused on removing dead trees around communities to reduce the threat of wildfire. But the Forest Service’s efforts are going much further, as it looks to protect everything from power-line corridors to areas of visitation such as campgrounds.
“We have thousands of miles of roads and trails that now have millions of dead trees within falling distance from those roads and trails and our facilities, including things like power lines,” said Jan Burke, forest health coordinator for the White River National Forest.
“As an agency and as a region, we’ve undertaken this huge task to try and prioritize areas that need to have that hazardous tree mitigation done so that we can avoid having to close trails and roads for extended periods of time.
“It’s just a huge project. These trees are going to hit the ground. All trees die at some point, and all trees fall over at some point, and we have an unusually large number of them poised to do so at this point in time.”
Dealing with the aftermath of bark and spruce beetle infestations has become the No. 1 priority for the White River National Forest, which encompasses about 2.3 million acres, stretching from west of Rifle to east of Silverthorne. Thanks in part to its ski areas, it is the nation’s top forest for recreation. It’s been buoyed by an $11 million budget for beetle-kill mitigation projects this fiscal year, up from $1 million.
“We have probably very few employees at this particular date not doing bark-beetle work,” Burke said.
She’s hoping for a more consistent flow of funds in the future, so the staffing is in place to make use of them. The high cost of living can make it hard to quickly find employees and contractors who are willing to move here or make long commutes.
TRAIL WORK TO ESCALATE
In terms of trail work, the Forest Service is focusing on areas of concentrated use. It has benefited this year from a slow fire season, which has freed up firefighting crews to focus on felling trees along some White River National Forest trails. An estimated 20 miles of trail will be worked on in the forest this summer, and 100 miles next summer.
“Right now, the emphasis is to get the trees on the ground in order to get the trails open,” Burke said.
But that’s only half the battle. The agency is trying to determine when it will make the most sense to leave fallen trees on the ground, or try to mulch or remove them.
Besides the visual effects of fallen trees, they pose a fire threat, Burke said. But it’s also a challenge to bring in the equipment needed to remove or grind up trees.
Low-pressure rubber tires are one approach to minimize effects of machinery on trails.
“But if you run them back and forth enough, you still have some impact there that visually, at the very least, folks are going to notice,” forest spokesman Pat Thrasher said.
WHERE TO TAKE THE WOOD?
Hauling out logs would create landscape impacts along trails, not to mention it adds to the challenge of what to do with a lot of falling timber. The Intermountain Resources sawmill in Montrose is in financial trouble, and Burke described a fledgling pellet mill industry in the state as “wavering back and forth.”
“There’s just an unimaginable amount of wood that needs to go somewhere,” Burke said.
“One of the central questions in responding to the beetle outbreak is: What do you do with the material?” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale.
Given the lack of an industry and the damage resulting from hauling logs, he thinks it’s better to grind them up in place with chippers or other machinery along trails, or just leave them there.
Shoemaker also is president of the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative, a diverse group of entities with a common interest in how to respond to the beetle outbreak.
He said the coalition is unified in its position that protecting lives, property and critical community infrastructure, including water supplies, should be the highest priority.
Shoemaker supports efforts such as protection of power-line corridors and safeguarding forest trails and roads so they remain open for the sake of communities that depend on outdoor recreation.
“If all the access was lost, the communities would take a big hit economically, so that’s why we embrace that,” he said.
A FOREST IN FLUX
However the Forest Service responds, visitors should brace themselves for change. Once-shaded campgrounds in the Silverthorne area now stand in areas that Thrasher said look like they’ve been clear-cut because of the number of trees that had to be removed for safety reasons. He said the hope is to eventually replant in some areas.
But regrowth will take time.
“These forests are 150 to 250 years old, and they’re dead, and it’s going to take a while to bring them back,” Burke said.
Still, she and Shoemaker said the die-off will produce some benefits, such as opening up areas for new and more diverse growth.
One beneficiary could be aspen, which are now rare in places such as Summit County.
“You’re going to have aspens in there. You’re going to have a lot more aspen and a fall-color season where there was none before,” he said.
Shoemaker said he already is seeing signs of regrowth in beetle-killed areas, and the less shaded areas will benefit wildlife. Shoemaker believes that in some ways, today’s forest visitors are lucky to see the death and regeneration that is occurring.
“The aesthetic experience is going to be different from what people are used to, but I think what this underscores is the forests are dynamic. What we see out the window today isn’t necessarily what we’ll see out of the window tomorrow,” he said.