After a proposal from For the Forest on how to mitigate damage from mountain pine beetle infestation on Smuggler Mountain, the Pitkin County commissioners directed their staff to continue working on logistics for the plan.
Meanwhile the bugs, which have killed over 2 million acres of lodgepole pine forest in Colorado and only recently started taking trees in the Aspen area, are expected to take flight and infect new trees as temperatures warm up this summer.
Representatives from For the Forest conveyed a dire sense of urgency to the commissioners, who nonetheless said they could not circumvent their standard public procedures.
“The difficulty for me is the process,” said Commissioner Michael Owsley, noting that a broader coalition — including federal and state forest services and the local fire departments — is not yet in lockstep with For the Forest’s plan.
“I am concerned that we are going to be so muddled in our own process that we will miss an opportunity this summer,” added commissioner Rachel Richards.
Her comment came at the conclusion of an hourlong work session Tuesday, in which representatives from the nonprofit group For the Forest outlined a plan to cut down and clear infected trees from Smuggler Mountain and treat at-risk tree stands with pheromone-impregnated flakes that could repel further infestation.
Pitkin County and the city of Aspen co-own 250 acres of land on Smuggler Mountain where the tree cutting is proposed. Aspen City Council voiced support for the group’s plan earlier this month, and likewise directed city staff to work on details for its possible implementation.
“We want to say this very clearly: It’s not about clear-cutting or logging,” For the Forest’s Executive Director John Bennett told the commissioners.
Gone untreated, each tree infested with the beetles will spread fivefold annually through nearby tree stands — meaning one beetle-hit pine from last year will kill five more this year, 25 next year, 125 the following, and so on exponentially until they are all dead.
The For the Forest proposal calls for infested trees within 150 feet of trails and roads on Smuggler Mountain to be selectively removed from the mountain. Wayne Shepperd, a forester and For the Forest consultant, estimated this would mean clearing about 200 trees over 66 acres around the popular hiking and biking area (a relatively small number compared to the 7,000 trees cleared from Vail just last year).
Repellent pheromones, called Verbenone, would additionally be dropped over the mountain by helicopter, horse or human. The method of implementation would depend on how much money the city and county put toward the potential project. For the Forest estimates felling and skidding the trees would cost about $30,000, peeling their bark, about $10,000. Bennett said yesterday he hoped For the Forest would be able to raise enough funds to pay half of any beetle mitigation work on Smuggler this year.
This is a short-term solution, the For the Forest representatives said, and the Aspen area will be dealing with the beetles for years to come. Shepperd pointed out that the relatively scant level of infestation on Smuggler today is similar to what he saw in areas like Fraser and Grand Lake a decade ago. The lodgepole pines there are nearly all dead now.
“The important thing is timing here,” said forester Bjorn Dahl, also a For the Forest consultant, who said time is short to do anything effective in 2009.
In years past, the beetles have not flown to new trees until June and July here. But, as Shepperd pointed out, “a lot of the textbook rules no longer apply to this pandemic.” For example, elsewhere beetles have taken flight as early as May and as late as October. And previously they were thought to be unable to fly above 9,000 feet, yet now they have infected trees in elevations as high as the timberline.
In addition to temporarily saving other tree stands, the For the Forest reps argued, clearing dead and dying pines would be a public safety measure — keeping trees from falling on hikers and lessening the risk of a severe forest fire. Cleared trees could be used for firewood, wood chips, or park benches, they said.
For the Forest — a nonprofit formed last year by Bennett, formerly Aspen’s mayor — has additionally spearheaded public education programs on bark pine beetles, including nature walks with the public identifying the at-risk lodgepole pines, and symposiums on the beetle phenomenon.
Bennett said yesterday that he hopes to meet jointly with Aspen City Council and the commissioners’ board, in the hopes they can agree on and implement a combat plan before the beetles attack this summer.
“We are moving as quickly as the bugs are moving,” said commissioner Patty Kay-Clapper. “Hopefully quicker.”