Forest experts concerned about Front Range impacts after seeing an explosion of new beetle activity in Larimer County in 2009
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Although the pace of pine beetle attacks in Summit County may have slowed slightly last year, the overall spread of the insect infestation shows no signs of slowing in the southern Rockies, forest experts said Friday as they released the results of aerial surveys from 2009.
Another half million acres of lodgepole pines were hit by the tiny bugs last year, and there are indications that the insects are spreading into new areas with vast stands of as-yet untouched lodgepoles. Most alarming was the rapid spread into the Front Range, especially in Larimer County, where 220,000 acres of trees were affected.
In Montana, 2.7 million acres of lodgepoles were infested by pine beetles in 2009, according to a story in the Billings Gazette.
Federal and state foresters said that, if the pine beetles decide to attack ponderosa pines in a big way, Front Range forests could be in big trouble. Ponderosas are also in the five-needle pine family, but thus far, the beetles have been spreading mostly through lodgepole forests west of the Continental Divide during the current outbreak.
In a bit of good news on the forest health front, researchers reported that the aspen die-off slowed almost to a standstill last year, after several years off dramatic decline. Researchers linked what they called sudden aspen decline to a combination of factors, including overly mature forests, human fire suppression and warming temperatures.
But there is renewed concern about global warming impacts on spruce beetles at higher elevations in Colorado. A long stretch of warmer-than-average winters has enabled that species of insect to gain a strong foothold and rangers said that, unless there is a significant cold snap, they expect more and more of the mature trees in the state’s landmark high-elevation forests to be affected by the latest insect threat.
State foresters said last week that there were some encouraging signs that the rate of pine beetle infestation was slowing in some areas, but the report released Friday didn’t offer much support for that conclusion.
” A lot of us don’t agree that we’ve seen the worst of it,” said Cal Wettstein, incident commander for a Forest Service pine beetle team. Wettstein also raised the alarm about the spread of the bugs to the Front Range and pointed out that there are still huge untouched swaths of lodgepole pine forests to the south and west of the hard-hit areas ripe for invasion by pine beetles.
“I wish I had a crystal ball,” said Rocky Mountain regional forester Rick Cables. “But frankly, barring a cold enough winter, we expect the beetles to keep killing lodgepoles,” The insects have reached the northern limits of the lodgepole forests in southern Wyoming, but forests in south-central Colorado — including the Pike San Isabel National Forest and other areas south and west of Summit County — could be next.
“They’re going south into areas still relatively unaffected … the beetles will work their way south,” Cables said.
With the current infestation well under way, both the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado State Forest Service are in an emergency mode. The issue is now national and federal funding is flowing to help address the most urgent concerns, including the potential fire danger and the hazard posed by falling trees.
More than 1,000 miles of trails are at risk, along with campgrounds, watersheds, powerlines and other facilities. The aerial surveys show bigger and bigger areas of blow-down, where winds have knocked over thousands of trees, blocking roads and trails and creating new pockets of fire hazards. In response, Cables said the agency has put a “top, elite fire team” in place to identify priority areas for treatment to take advantage of a two to three year window of opportunity for treatment — while the trees still have some commercial value and before they fall over.
Colorado State Forest Service chief Jeff Jahnke said collaboration among state, federal and local officials is crucial, and that local community wildfire protection plans are at the heart of the effort to mitigate fire danger.
“It’s not a problem getting the attention of the public anymore … and there is genuine interest on the part of elected officials,” Jahnke said.
Along with acting to address the short-term issues, foresters must think about the next forest, Cables said.
“What are the restoration opportunities?” he asked, explaining that mitigating immediate concerns must not become a barrier for regeneration. Cables announced that a large-scale restoration initiative, involving four national forests, is in its early stages, aimed at ensuring long-term forest health in the headwaters of Colorado’s major rivers.
“We don’t want our kids to wake up 50, 70, 100 years from now with another 50 million acres of lodgepole pine ready to go again,” he said.
All the Forest Service documents and maps on the latest surveys are online here.