July 21, 2008

Colorado and Beetle-Mania

By Hazlehurst, John

During the last 10 years, mountain pine beetles have killed more than 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pines statewide.

Summit County, home to Colorado's ski industry, has been particularly hard hit.

The verdant forests that once framed Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone and Beaver Creek are dying, attacked by an invading army of microscopic beetles less than an eighth of an inch in length. Tens of thousands of acres of dead or dying trees now surround once-picturesque ski runs.

Efforts to control the beetles have failed.

"Once MPB infests a tree, nothing practical can be done to save that tree," D.A. Leatherman, retired Colorado State Forest entomologist wrote in a recent paper. "Chemical control options for MPB larvae have been greatly limited in recent years. At present, there are no labeled pesticides for use on MPB."

Warmer weather in the Colorado Rockies also might be contributing to the beetle epidemic, Leatherman said. "For freezing temperatures to affect a large number of larvae during the middle of winter, temperatures of at least 30 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) must be sustained for at least five days."

But such prolonged cold snaps have not occurred in affected areas during the last 10 years.

For Summit County, the battle is over. The beetles have won.

Meanwhile, Front Range water consumers might have to help pay for removing trees infected by pine beetles near the ski areas.

Senate Bill 221, sponsored by Sen. Dan Gibbs (D-Silverthorne) and signed by Gov. Bill Ritter, permits the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority to loan money to water providers which would in turn pay to remove beetle-killed trees.

The Water Authority would issue bonds to finance the loans, but the money to service the loans would come from water users in Denver and Colorado Springs. The law does not mandate such loans, but it makes available a mechanism to mitigate the watershed damage that occurred after the Hayman fire.

Last Tuesday in Vail, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar called the mountain pine beetle the "Katrina of the West."

"The bark beetle is really a scourge on the lives of the people who live here and the economy," Salazar said. "We're working on it. If it was a magic fix, we would fix it, but the reality is we are on a journey and it's going to take us a while to get over this cycle that was brought to us by nature."

And forests in the Pikes Peak region also could be at risk.

"MPB mostly attacks lodgepole pine, and our forests are pinon pine, limber pine and Engelmann spruce, so they're not as susceptible," said Brent Botts, district ranger for the Forest Service. "But we still have problems."

The publicly owned lands which circle Pikes Peak are the subject of a study commissioned by the Pikes Peak Ranger District. The Catamount Landscape Assessment is meant to "provide a meaningful guide for the future management of the (area) for the Pikes Peak Ranger District."

The 97,000 acres included in the CLA are important economic generators, although those benefits might not be readily apparent.

The study concludes that "resource extraction from the CLAA does not play a significant role in the local economies. The market for timber is very limited, with only one small active lumber mill. Firewood is one of the few extraction practices that is economically viable. Over 1,800 permits within the assessment area were sold to private individuals for removal of firewood for one cord per permit at $10 each."

But, as Dave White of the Economic Development Corp. pointed, the true economic value of such land is enormous.

"It's a big part of our appeal to primary employers," he said. "It's the way we market ourselves, it's our regional identity."

The forests of the CLA, together with similar privately owned land, line the Ute Pass corridor, the Pikes Peak Highway, Barr Trail and the western boundary of Colorado Springs.

The visitor industry provides 14,000 jobs in Colorado Springs and as much as 25 percent of the city's sales tax revenue.

For businesses along the Ute Pass corridor, visitor revenue is even more critical, accounting for 36 percent of all jobs in Teller County. Absent a healthy forest backdrop, that revenue could be at risk.

Bob Accinnie, who owns a tree service in Woodland Park, said that the forests are already under siege.

"You see pockets of beetle-infested ponderosas along Highway 24 from Cascade to Teller County," he said. "The state doesn't have the resources to do anything about them, so it'll never end. You talk to some people, they'll tell you we won't have any trees at all within 20 years."

The CLA is somewhat less pessimistic. "... mortality in the ponderosa pine is evident as pockets of dead and dying trees can be seen throughout the landscape ... there has been some infestation of bristlecone and limber pine on the Pike National Forest, and it is speculated that a large portion of limber and bristlecone pine could be killed within the next few years."

Limber pine accounts for more than 30 percent of the forest. It's vulnerable to MPB and, perhaps more significantly, to an exotic newcomer.

White pine blister rust, an introduced wind-dispersed fungal disease, has caused "severe mortality" among limber pines in the northern Rockies, and has already invaded neighboring Colorado national forests.

The CLA says that blister rust has the potential to affect 30 percent of the forested area. "Infection would be considered outside the historic range of variability, and lack of genetic resistance could greatly alter ecosystems ..."

Credit: John Hazlehurst

(Copyright 2008 Dolan Media Newswires)

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