BAYLOR PARK - Water drips off the branches of Englemann spruce and falls silent on the forest floor. It drips off the old man's beard lichen that envelops the trees in Baylor Park on a gray day in early September. At 135 to 200 years old , these trees are the grand old dames of the White River National Forest.And they are dying. Although their needles haven't turned the characteristic red-brown of the beetle-killed trees at lower elevations, on closer look many are dead or dying.On Aug. 18, 1999, a large windstorm blew down spruce, fir and aspen trees in a 3,000 acre area of Baylor Park southwest of the Sunlight ski area. Spruce bark beetles quickly invaded the downed spruce trees, and soon infested surrounding living trees. Today it has spread five miles beyond the original blowdown area, said Jan Burke, a forester with the White River National Forest.Burke, muffled in a rain jacket, points out the infested trees. "It breaks my heart," she said. And there's not much she can do about it.But this infestation is nothing compared to the beetle killed trees in Summit and eastern Eagle counties, and communities on the Front Range that back up to the national forest where mountain pine beetle has attacked lodgepole pines and left thousands of acres of dead trees. "Likely we will lose the majority of the lodgepole across that landscape," Burke said of the infestation in Summit and Eagle counties. The White River National Forest is now in the path of the storm. Besides the beetle outbreak in Baylor Park, there is also "a rolling infestation on the Grand Mesa that is moving this way," Burke said.With beetle infestations reaching epidemic proportions, people, not just foresters, are sitting up and taking notice. Colorado legislators have introduced several bills this year that address the problem. U.S. Senators Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar and Representatives Bob Beauprez, John Salazar and Mark Udall met earlier this summer to combine their bills that they hope will stem the attack and avert large-scale fires in beetle-killed trees, especially in residential areas. "The fire hazard created by bark beetles will impact our communities soon, and for years to come," said Sen. Ken Salazar.
Two types of bark beetles are responsible for most of the damage sweeping national forests in the state. Both bore beneath the bark and eventually kill the tree. During their life cycle they lay eggs, increasing populations exponentially. These new adults move on to infest other trees.Mountain pine beetles attack lodgepole pines, which die about one year after being infested. When the trees die their needles turn a reddish brown. Spruce beetles also bore beneath the bark and inoculate the trees with blue stain fungus which ultimately kills the tree. They also attack big mature trees. Infested spruce tree needles do not turn brown but fall off when they're still green.
Bark beetles are part of the forest ecosystem, Burke said. They attack living trees in cycles over periods of years. There are also environmental factors that pave the way for these infestations. The primary factor, said Burke, is the age of a forest. In the White River, which covers about 2 million acres between Rifle and Silverthorne, Meeker and Aspen, 95 percent of the spruce are mature trees 90 years old or older. They're the perfect target for spruce beetles which attack older, larger trees.Drought also creates good conditions for bark beetles. The drought of the last several years has stressed the spruce in the forest."Beetles respond to stressed trees. When there's less water available there's less pitch in the trees which is their defense material," she said.Global warming could also be a factor. We're now experiencing longer growing seasons in the West with warmer winters, earlier springs and later falls, and that means a greater survival rate for beetles.Such large-scale infestations are natural and happen over long periods of time. Mountain pine beetle infestations occur every 15 years or so; Spruce beetle every 200-250 years.
The White River National Forest has no specific policy at present for stemming the tide of beetle infestation. Burke said she's planning to map infested areas and assess what areas need to be treated. The areas of biggest risk are the areas with the biggest trees. "We need to evaluate where the key resource values are and prioritize what are most important" such as campgrounds and ski areas. "We can't treat everything."At this stage of the game, even in the White River where the beetle infestation is relatively light compared to forests east of here, there is no way to stop the spread."We're not going to stop the infestation," she said.What it can do is cut down the standing dead timber and thin uninfested areas to encourage younger trees to grow and diversify the forest.Sloan Shoemaker of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop agrees there's no stopping the beetles. In fact, he and many other conservationists strongly oppose any sort of treatment."There is no ecological reason for (the Forest Service) to do anything," he said. "Beetle outbreaks have occurred throughout the millennia. The forest depends on them for renewal."However, Shoemaker said high value trees threatened with a beetle attack should be saved."But don't say (as the Forest Service does) that there is a forest crisis," he added.Burke believes the forest missed a chance to stem the tide after the Baylor Park blowdown occurred. The Forest Service proposed a timber salvage sale to remove the downed trees. But Shoemaker said the Forest Service went too far with its proposal."The Forest Service saw an opportunity to sell a bunch of timber, and frankly, they got greedy," he said. The Wilderness Workshop filed an objection to the plan that was denied, and then filed a lawsuit that was settled out of court. In that settlement the Forest Service agreed to harvest only dead or dying trees, Shoemaker said.Burke said treatment of beetle-killed trees is not all about logging."My motivation is not to get two by fours out the door but keeping (the forest) green," she said. Her approach is to make way for the new forest that will eventually replace the beetle-killed trees."I'm not thinking about how much forest we can save but how to jump start a new forest," she said.What is certain is the natural process of beetles killing vast tracts of trees will mean great change in our landscape."Our grandchildren will not see the forest like this again," Burke said.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org