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West's beetle infestation triggers worries about fire, economy
DENVER – Beneath deep snow across the high Rockies lies in wait a bug not much bigger than an eyelash that poses one of the most devastating threats to forests in decades.
And there is very little anyone can do about it.
Millions of bark beetles have created wide swaths of dead and dying trees, marring breathtaking vistas from Alaska to the Southwest. Unprecedented outbreaks are ongoing in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. Landowners have tried pesticides and logging trees, but the infestations haven't flagged.
The devastation has caused worries about whether tourists will stay away and whether wildfire will race through the carpets of brittle red needles, threatening communities, utility transmission lines and water supplies.
"We've been here 30 years. ... This is the worst ever," said Ken Fosha of the Drowsy Water Ranch in a scenic valley near the Continental Divide about 60 miles northwest of Denver.
To some degree, it will hurt business, Fosha said, noting that guests last summer commented about the red-and-brown trees and said they may look for other vacation spots. Other area businesses report a drop in reservations for special events such as mountain weddings.
Three miles east of Cooke City, Mont., near Yellowstone National Park, Skyline Guest Ranch co-owner Liz Jackson has watched crews logging trees in a nearby basin to try to control the outbreak. "It really looks sad," she said. "If you were based in that area, it would have huge impact."
Various species of beetles have thrived in recent decades because of warmer winters that allow more insects to live amid aging trees in crowded forests, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
It takes at least a week or two of nighttime temperatures around 40 below zero to kill the beetles, Granby Mayor Ted Wang said, adding, "We have not seen cold weather like that in 15 years."
The sticks of dead trees, downed logs and other debris have become fuel for wildfires, including the devastating ones last year in Southern California and Alaska.
In Alaska, a spruce bark beetles epidemic began in the late 1980s, peaking about 10 years later after killing white spruce trees on several million acres of federal and state land and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage and the Copper River area east of Anchorage.
Much of the damage occurred away from populated areas where access is either limited or prohibited. That makes it difficult to assess the economic impact, said Jack Phelps, a forest products specialist for the Alaska Office of Economic Development.
One large sawmill went out of business and some log home builders were hurt, but no significant impact was reported on the tourist industry, he said.
"I don't know if anybody has ever tried to put a dollar figure on it," he said. "It's hard to quantify what it crippled."
Wildfire continues to be a big worry, Phelps said.
In Colorado, the infestation is the work of the mountain pine beetle. Adult beetles fly from mid-July to mid-September, boring into healthy trees to lay eggs before dying inside the bark. The eggs hatch and the larvae spend the winter beneath the bark before emerging as adults to fly to new trees.
The first signs of Colorado's current outbreak were reported in 1996. A 2007 survey showed the beetles have chewed into lodgepole pine trees across 1.5 million acres and have begun to spread east across the Continental Divide along the Front Range of the Rockies, home to metropolitan Denver.
Forest Service officials predict that most of the state's lodgepole pine trees – the predominant pine at higher elevations – will be killed within five years.
"We're seeing an entire forest die before our very eyes," said Gary Severson, 60, of Frisco, executive director of the Northwest Colorado Regional Council of Governments. "I've been dealing with bark beetles for a long, long time, and I've never seen anything this big."
Last summer, Severson and his family were camping at Steamboat Lake when he paused near a lodgepole pine as a swarm of beetles arrived, landing on the tree, his arms and his hair. "You can't hear them fly so much but you can hear them as they begin to bore into the tree," he said. "It was pretty eerie to watch."
Some Colorado campgrounds were closed last summer as crews cut down dead trees. There also are concerns about such hazards as trees falling across hiking trails.
Residents and businesses worry about wildfires that could destroy buildings, jeopardize utility transmission lines and contaminate water supplies, not only for mountain communities but for metro Denver.
To curb infestations, communities, residents and government agencies have sprayed trees with beetle-killing pesticide and thinned out the thick stands of trees.
It's a challenge because of the cost, the millions of beetles involved and the fact that the trees often are in areas difficult to reach, such as steep mountain slopes inaccessible by road.
That has left plenty of wood for salvage, but it isn't necessarily a good deal for the timber industry, which is coping with the lowest lumber prices in 30 years because of the troubled housing market, said Tom Troxel, director of the Intermountain Forest Association, a trade group.
"There's some real questions, a lot of uncertainty about what's going to be left after the mountain pine beetle and what the forest management needs are and how the forest industry fits into that," he said.
In nearby Winter Park, real estate agent Katie Riemenschneider of Coldwell Banker Mountain Properties said the logging has opened up more sunlight and spectacular vistas on some properties previously enveloped by trees.
Prospective buyers these days also consider the cost of tree removal. For example, companies charge about $15 per tree for pesticide spraying, and from roughly $60 to $80 a tree, she said.
"It's nature's way. It is what it is because it's been given to us and we're dealing with it," she said. "In five-plus years, it's going to be beautiful forests."