Sen. Mark Udall praised a local pest eradication campaign when he visited the top of Aspen’s Smuggler Mountain on Saturday, surrounded by local dignitaries, trail work volunteers, and countless trees tacked with packets of bark pine beetle pheromones.
The highly trafficked hiking destination has been hit by a growing epidemic of bark pine beetles, who have killed an estimated 2.5 million acres of lodgepole pine trees in Colorado and Wyoming in recent years, and infected trees from Canada to Central America. The dead trees threaten to increase regional wildfire, contaminate watersheds and destroy infrastructure like power lines, roads and trails.
For the last two summers, the city of Aspen, Pitkin County, and the local nonprofit For the Forest have partnered to treat trees with pheromones to keep beetles away, and airlifted out about 250 pines already infested with the killer bugs.
Sen. Udall applauded those three groups and the U.S. Forest Service for working together on this complex issue crippling forests throughout the West.
“You’re an example for the state, for the region, for the nation ... . It’s a great story for me to be able to tell,” Udall said.
Udall has sponsored and passed legislation targeting the beetle epidemic, including an emergency bill to let the Forest Service treat high-risk forests and last year’s FLAME act, partially targeting wildfire suppression among dry, dead, beetle-killed trees.
The senator’s visit was part of an ongoing tour around the state, following a congressional season that ended with the failure to pass new energy legislation.
“That’s part of the reason I ran for the Senate, to be an advocate for that,” Udall said of the disappointing inability to get support for a carbon pricing bill. “We’ve had some disappointments lately, but I’m not going to quit. I’m going to keep working to get us some real energy policy for the long term.”
For the Forest executive director John Bennett, a former Aspen mayor, thanked Udall for his work in Washington battling the beetle, and reminded the afternoon crowd of the link between energy use, global warming and the beetle epidemic. With forest health in decline and high country winters no longer cold enough to kill the infectious beetles, Bennett said, “a complex web of causal relationships is behind all of this. But one common denominator can also be recognized: that is warming temperatures.”
Also offering brief comments were Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman, county land steward Gary Tennenbaum, and White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
Fitzwilliams said he hoped the massive beetle kill could translate into Colorado jobs for people to not only take down trees but also develop ways to convert them into biomass and process them, creating new industries and what he called “restoration economies.”
The phrase pricked up Sen. Udall’s ears, and he added, “Those jobs are here, they’re in America, they can’t be outsourced — and I think it connects us to the land we are so fortunate to inhabit in the West.”
The brief visit took place mere yards away from the former site of Wilk Wilkinson’s controversial and illegal mountaintop home, which was torn down after the city and county bought the property from him.
On Saturday, about 30 locals with the nonprofit Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers cut 1,800 feet of new singletrack trail there, which will bypass an eroded jeep road. The new trail is still incomplete and as yet unnamed, but one volunteer suggested they call it “Wilkinson’s Folly.”
As Udall shook hands around the worksite, a forester from Colorado State University handed him a preserved dead bark pine beetle in a small vial. The senator, clad in cowboy boots, jeans and a collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, grinned and said, “You know, I already have one of those on my desk in Washington.”