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Good news, bad news for Colorado forests

Pine beetle infestation slows, but spruce beetles continue to spread

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Healthy spruce-fir forest at Vail Pass. bberwyn photo.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — There’s good news and bad news for Colorado forests, according to state and federal officials, who said last week that the mountain pine beetle epidemic slowed dramatically in 2013, while spruce beetles continued to spread.

Statewide, mountain pine beetles were active on 97,000 acres in 2013, the lowest acreage of active infestation in 15 years. Since 1996, mountain pine beetles have killed trees across 3.4 million acres.

Spruce beetle were active on 398,000 acres, expanding by 216,000 new acres in 2013, compared to 183,000 new acres in 2012. The total area affected by this beetle since 1996 has reached more than 1.1 million acres.

Many spruce-fir forests across Colorado are at an age that makes them susceptible to beetles, and misguided fire suppression activities in recent decades have exacerbated the problem. Additionally, regionally warming temperatures appear to be a key factor in the recent spread and persistence of insect pests.

The assessment is part of the aerial forest health survey in Colorado, done annually to monitor insect and disease-caused tree mortality or damage across Colorado forestland.

Forest experts said aspen health continues to improve. The aerial survey indicated that only 1,200 acres of aspens died off last year, a huge drop from the significant losses in the early 2000s, generally attributed to drought conditions that weakend the trees and either killed them directly or made them more susceptible to other pests.

“Restoring forest health and resiliency is a top regional priority, and is guiding much of the work on the forests,” said Dan Jirón, regional forester for the Rocky Mountain Region of the US Forest Service, promising to step up the pace of forest restoration projects.

“Bark beetles and other forest health concerns don’t recognize property boundaries, so it’s critical for land managers and private landowners to work together to address forest management across federal, state and private lands,” said Colorado State Forester Mike Lester. “The Colorado State Forest Service provides private landowners, who are the stewards of most non-federal lands in Colorado, the tools they need to improve forest health and achieve their management objectives.”

Across Colorado, national forests are stepping up forest treatments, with four 10-year stewardship contracts to remove dead trees to restore forests and increase their resiliency. The US Forest Service has also awarded several short-term stewardship contracts aimed at improving forest health and adding to local economies.

One example is the recently operational Gypsum biomass plant. The plant converts wood chips from beetle-killed trees into enough electricity to run the plant and pump an additional 10 megawatts into the Holy Cross Energy Facility, which powers approximately 55,000 customers in Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, Gunnison and Mesa counties. Much of the wood the plant will process will come from beetle-killed trees from the White River National Forest.

While the US Forest Service takes action on National Forest lands, the Colorado State Forest Service works with private landowners to help them meet their management objectives to achieve healthy forests. The agency will release a new quick guide on the spruce beetle by April, and in 2013 held educational public meetings about the beetle for citizens in Chaffee, Custer, Fremont, Huerfano, Lake, Las Animas, Pueblo and Saguache counties.

For further information on forest health conditions in the Rocky Mountain Region, visit http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/r2/forest-grasslandhealth

For information directed at private landowners to help manage for healthier forests, visit www.csfs.colostate.edu.

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One Response

  1. “Many spruce-fir forests across Colorado are at an age that makes them susceptible to beetles, and misguided fire suppression activities in recent decades have exacerbated the problem. Additionally, regionally warming temperatures appear to be a key factor in the recent spread and persistence of insect pests.”

    Good article, but I felt the need to correct a couple things.Although fire suppression has certainly had unintended consequences in some forest types, this is probably not the case for the spruce-fir zone which is typically on a 300-500 year large fire return interval.

    It is hard to determine what impacts increasing temps have played with the spruce beetle epidemic. The primary triggers appear to have been blowdown and drought. Blowdown allowed populations to build and drought stressed the trees allowing the beetles to successfully attack them. Their populations exploded and now they can overwhelm healthy trees.

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