Jan 242010
 
Authors: Lincoln Greenhaw

In what U.S. Forest Service officials are calling an “emergency,” the number of acres in Larimer County infested by the mountain pine beetle nearly doubled last year, shooting up by 220,000 acres.

The new numbers, released at a U.S. Forest Service press conference Friday, come from an annual aerial survey of forest health in the Rocky Mountain region. Widespread damage caused by the pests has forestry officials working at a maddening pace to reduce the danger of fire or infrastructure damage created by dead or dying trees.

“We’ve used the term emergency, and I really do believe we have an emergency,” said Rick Cables, Rocky Mountain Regional Forester.

The aerial survey revealed that more than another half-million acres of forests face destruction at the mandibles of mountain pine beetle for a total bark beetle footprint of 3.6 million acres in Northern Colorado and Southern Wyoming, a number Cables said was “stunning.”

Until recently, the current infestation, which began around 1996, had been mostly confined to high-altitude lodge pole pine trees, but over the past year, the beetles have eaten into the lower-altitude Ponderosa pines that cover the Front Range.

“If the beetles decide to switch over to Ponderosa pine in a big way, then a lot of the front range is potentially going to be affected. And that would be a very devastating circumstance,” Cables said.
A
side from the unattractiveness of the dead brown trees, the husks can cause serious problems when left on mountains to rot. The trouble happens when the dead trees finally fall.

The region affected by the beetle contains more than 550 miles of power lines, Cables said, and more than 3,000 miles of roads.

“One tree falling on a road can close a road. One tree on a power line and the power’s out,” Cables said. “With that amount of linear mileage of this kind of infrastructure, we’ve got a ton of work to do.

Aside from infrastructure, though, the fire risk associated with dead trees also threatens Colorado’s forests.

“What happens when the trees fall on the ground is you’ve got a continuous fuel bed,” Cables said. “You get a fire up and running in that kind of condition, it’s very difficult to stop.”

To compound the crisis, much of the affected region also acts as a watershed for much of the West, and Cables said a large fire could “very seriously damage people’s water supply.”

However, the Forest Service does have a plan to avert disaster.

It has already dispatched a Nation Incident Management Team to the affected area, a unit usually reserved for serious fires or crises like Hurricane Katrina.

The Forest Service has given the team two years to deal with the hazard by clearing dead trees and working with communities to safeguard their infrastructures.

But the plan involves a tremendous amount of work. It also requires state and national government to pass more legislation allocating money for forest projects in the future.

“We are extremely grateful for the $40 million that has been allocated to the Rocky Mountain Region for hazard tree removal,” Governor Bill Ritter, a democrat, said in a press release Friday. “It’s important to understand that addressing the public safety risks caused by beetles will take a lot of resources and many years of hard work.”

Cal Wettstein, U.S. Forest Service Bark Beetle Incident Commander, said the job will be tough, indeed. When asked how many acres have already been cleared, he said, “In fiscal year 2008, the number was about 25,000 acres on National Forest land; 2009, a little over 25,000 acres; and plans for this year, a little over 50,000 acres.”

Even for the famously hard-working firefighters and foresters, it will be slow going to clear or protect the 3.5 million acres of damaged trees that are left.

But, while fire can be catastrophic when acres of fallen logs are used as fuel, the upright dead trees aren’t necessarily more likely to catch fire than live green trees, said Sandy Briggs of the Forest Health Task Force.

“The most important aspect of Fire danger has to do with the climate. Green trees burn really well. It’s more a matter of how dry the summer is, not whether they have red or green needles,” Briggs said.

This summer, everyone will be looking to the sky for answers.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” said Susan Gray, Forest Health Management Group Leader.

Staff Writer Lincoln Greenhaw can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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