Local ski areas avoid beetle devastation | PostIndependent.com

Local ski areas avoid beetle devastation

The bark beetle infestation that’s sweeping through Colorado won’t hit the four local ski areas as hard as other resorts, thanks to Mother Nature and an assist from the U.S. Forest Service and Aspen Skiing Co.

The forest surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley has a diverse mix of trees, making it less susceptible to infestations, said Skye Sieber, a staff member at the White River National Forest. The lodgepole pines – targets of the mountain pine beetle – are mixed with Douglas fir and spruce trees.

“Aspen’s in a little bit of a different situation than some of the ski areas on the east end of the forest,” Sieber said. Beetle infestations have devastated portions of Vail and Breckenridge simply because lodgepole pines dominated the forests there.

The Forest Service and Skico are going to take advantage of the natural defenses in the forest surrounding Aspen. An inventory of the ski areas was undertaken over the last few years to identify the tree mix and level of infestation. Now the Forest Service is working on an environmental assessment for a vegetation management plan that will guide Skico actions for the next five to 10 years.

Infested trees will be cut down to minimize the spread of beetles; forest stands will be thinned to promote new growth and age diversity; and insecticides will be used to try to save specific “high value trees,” according to an announcement on the environmental assessment.

Up to 2,694 acres at Snowmass will be treated along with 845 acres at Aspen Highlands, 403 acres at Buttermilk and 185 acres at Aspen Mountain. That doesn’t mean all trees over those acreages will be treated. It means there will be treatment within areas that size, according to the Forest Service.

White River National Forest silviculturist Jan Burke was in a meeting Thursday and couldn’t be reached for comment on the level of infestation at the local ski areas. Preliminary assessments in 2009 indicated there were lodgepole pines at some density level on about 800 acres out of 5,300 acres at the four ski areas. The highest level of infestation was apparent at Highlands, Burke said at the time.

Rich Burkley, Skico vice presidents of operations, said skiers won’t find wide swaths of dead trees or clear cuts on the ski hills this winter. The Skico’s operating permit from the Forest Service allows it to remove dead and dying trees, as long as a threshold number isn’t exceeded. Trees that were killed by beetles and disease are removed, stashed at certain locations on the mountains, then burned after the first substantial snow. Smoke from the burning of slash piles at Highlands and Buttermilk was visible Thursday. The burning will continue over the next two weeks.

Burkley said lodgepoles attacked by beetles are wrapped in polyethylene after they are cut down. That heats them enough during the summer that the larvae are cooked and prevented from taking flight to other trees.

The Skico has experienced the highest amount of dead trees at Aspen Highland and West Buttermilk, according to Burkley. Preventative measures are being planned to protect tree stands in specific areas, such as Alpine Springs at Snowmass, he said.

The Forest Service prepared maps of each of the four ski areas showing the forest composition and the proposed treatment. For example, the vast majority of Highlands is covered with a mix that’s less than 50 percent lodgepole pine. Salvage cuts will be allowed in those areas to remove dead trees and generate growth.

The maps can be found at http://www.fs.usda.gov/whiteriver, then by clicking on the link for “Land and Resource Management” link and finally by clicking on the link for “Projects.”

As part of the public comment process, the Forest Service will accept feedback through Nov. 15. Written comments should be sent to Aspen Skico Forest Health Project, Skye Sieber, project leader, 0094 County Rd. 244, Rifle, CO 81650, or e-mail them to wrnf_scoping_comments@fs.fed.us.

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