Feb 032011
Authors: Jennifer Saylor

The mountain pine beetle has been chewing through Colorado forests for more than a decade, but the tiny insect took the biggest bite out of Larimer County’s forests last year.

Joe Duda, the forest management supervisor for the Colorado State Forest Service, explained that Larimer took the most damage of any county in the state last year because it has a relatively high number of Ponderosa Pine trees compared to other counties. Since the turn of the century, he said, Larimer has seen a tenfold increase of beetle-infected trees, taking the total affected acreage up to 234,000 acres.

“The Ponderosa forest of today is probably two to three times the stocking level as it should be,” said Dave Lentz of the Larimer County Forestry Department. “The beetle problem has gotten really close to town.” 

The explosion in the beetle population began in higher-elevation areas of Colorado such as West Park and Granby in the late 1990s, but as the beetles ran out of usable trees to inhabit, they spread and moved down the mountains. The rapid increase in beetles resulted in part from a century of putting out wildfires and the severe drought cycle that ran between 2000 and 2004, Duda said.

“We need to decide what we want our forests to look like in the future,” said Duda.  “We got exactly what we have been managing for.”

An increase in average annual temperature has also played a role in helping the pests thrive, creating a complex set of problems for the Forest Service. 

If the dead, dried up trees are left standing, they pose a critical fire hazard.  If a fire were to occur, it could devastate the soil for years, creating problems for forest and river ecosystems alike.

Thinning of lodgepole forests, however, leaves the remaining trees vulnerable to high winds. Clear-cutting is one solution to this dilemma, but to some people who hike in the mountains, large patches of missing trees is not an appealing option. 

But cut-down, beetle-kill trees do have their uses. Clear-cut wood is used to make everything from flooring and cabinets to coasters and picture frames. It’s even used to make structures.

About 15 percent of the trees destroyed by beetles are actually harvested and used for lumber and energy.

CSU itself has a wood-burning furnace at the Foothills Campus. Wood-burning is a form of biomass energy and is considered to be environmentally friendly. Since trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow, burning them only re-releases what they took out. The CSFS hopes to heat and power more buildings with wood-furnaces.

“The newer wood-burning appliances are very clean,” Duda said.  “When you use wood as fuel it offsets the use of fossil fuels.” 

Susan Ford, a community forester and the Wood-to-Energy Program manager, also said wood is a good source of fuel because “wood is one of the few materials that can be converted into a liquid-ethanol, heat or electricity.”

“There are very few materials you can do that with,” said Ford, who also helps communities, universities and the State Forest Service manage trees that are not on federal land.

But even with potential uses for beetle-kill, Duda said much of the landscape is off limits to managements. Ford also said wood tends to lose its energy value over time and there are just too many dead trees to keep up with.

“There are a lot more dead trees than we could ever use. The longer they are there, the less value they have for heat and other uses,” she said.

Staff writer Jennifer Saylor can be reached at news@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 5:14 pm

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