Nearly a decade into the largest bark beetle outbreak in Colorado history, U.S. Forest Service managers are refocusing their priorities. Dozens of Forest Service roads and trails in Grand County are being red flagged for logging and funds are being redirected to treat any remaining Forest Service lands that share border towns and residential communities.
The unusually windy spring was "a major wake-up call," said District Ranger Craig Magwire of the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest's Sulphur Ranger District.
"It's been all hands on deck," dealing with blowdowns across roads and trails across the district, he said: "We've pretty much been in triage mode."
Work is hindered in some popular areas, such as Monarch Lake where a wilderness designation prevents the use of chainsaws along much of the trail and handcrews are necessary to access remote locations.
"The district has basically been in the middle of a decade-long fire prevention exercise," Magwire said.
But, now, with most of the large tract timber sales under belt, managers are taking another look at the landscape with an eye toward trees that threaten power lines, roads and trails.
As the infestation got going in 2001 and 2002, "we knew it would be large," Magwire said. The combination of a drought, older larger stands and warmer winters provided the prime opportunity for a blight of never-before-seen proportions.
The Forest Service looked to timber sales as a tool to reduce the wildfire threat to communities and protect the watershed.
"The intent was not to eliminate fire from the system. We've learned that lesson," Magwire said.
Sales of tracts larger than 1,000 acres were expedited to meet the timber industry's requirement for tree stands that have been dead less than five years.
In a district-wide survey in the early stages of the outbreak, areas that were identified for logging included older stands of trees with existing access from existing roads and gentle terrain. Some 18,000 acres of loggable terrain was highlighted at that time.
"We sold as much as we could, and it worked to a large extent," Magwire said.
The Sulphur Ranger District signed contracts on some 9,300 acres, and about 7,400 acres of that has been logged to date.
"We're almost there," Magwire said.
Willow Creek is one of the last remaining areas that will go up for timber sale, and Magwire said he feels confident that that sale will be successful despite the downturn in the lumber market.
"We are keenly aware of the major role that we play in the local economy," Magwire said.
Maintaining the county's recreational opportunities was the Forest Service's second highest priority when it came to fighting the beetle kill epidemic.
In the past decade, the Sulphur Ranger District has managed to keep almost every campground, trail and road in its system open and available to the public.
That's not something that can be said of neighboring public lands and forests.
People come to the area to hike, bike, ride, hunt along the roads and trails and to stay at the campgrounds, Magwire said. They visit the shops, eat at the restaurants and buy gas.
"It's something we have to pay close attention to," he said. "We've really had to do a lot of work to keep up with it. People don't realize that."
Work at the campgrounds has focused on the early spring and late fall to avoid disruption to visitors.
A lot of trial and error has been involved along the way, Magwire said. The Forest Service tried at first to clear only the dead trees from the campground only to discover that the remaining stands weren't strong enough to withstand the winds. So most of the campgrounds have had to be clearcut, he said.
The upshot, he added, is that the view has improved and the added sun helps keep campers warm in the cool mountain climate.
"We're nearing the end of that chapter," he said. Only a few campgrounds remain on the high priority list for tree removal.
"We are replanting trees now, and that's a really good feeling," he said. Nearly 14,000 seedlings were planted at campgrounds this spring.
Early in the project, district managers also identified dozens of areas that bordered towns and developments that wouldn't make good timber sales but would need to be logged for fire prevention and safety.
Dealing with timber in these "service areas" presented a challenge, since there were typically no existing access roads or the terrain is too steep, Magwire said.
"We never knew if we would be funded to do it," Magwire said. But, in recent years, more than $2 million has come into the district to work on these areas. To stretch the funding as much as possible in these areas, trees are cut down, logs are stacked, some of the slash is burned and the rest is "lopped and scattered."
At this point. Magwire said only a few critical parcels of service work remain, mostly on the border of the Town of Winter Park, and the town has expressed interest in helping fund the removal of trees in these areas using its forestry funds to increase its fire buffer. Vail did a similar thing along its border with the White River National Forest.
The pockets that have been created by the timber sales and service contracts will provide fire breaks and open up the forest floor to regeneration, giving new trees a chance to grow. Looking up at the hillsides now, patches of young green trees can be seen among the dying old stands.
"We are almost to the end of that chapter too," Magwire said.
Forest managers are now taking a fresh look at the district and reprioritizing areas that need the most immediate attention, including power lines, roads, trails and other infrastructure.
Power companies are working closely with the Forest Service to increase the buffer along thousands of miles of power line that run through public lands. While the District has given Mountain Parks Electric the 'go' to remove any trees that are a hazard to power lines and environmental impact assessments are under way to plan more work along the power lines, no public funding has been designated toward that project at this time.
"In my opinion, it's the power company's responsibility," Magwire said. "But, we're looking at it and we're working with them on it."
Roads, particularly main trunk road where people travel at high speeds, have also been given top priority and pre-contract work including environmental assessments are underway on nearly a dozen roads in the Sulphur District.
Speed of travel and high use helped ranger district mangers identify which roads needed the quickest attention, said Magwire, who hopes to have contracts in place and funding squared away to start work along these high -priority roads next summer. Crews will clear all potentially hazardous trees within a tree-length of these roads, Magwire said.
Trails present an even greater challenge since they often require hand crews, and falling trees and high winds put crews at great risk.
Magwire said that high-use trails and those with a high-speed of travel such as motorized vehicle trails and mountain bike trails will also receive first priority. Work is already underway in the Stillwater Trail system, but Magwire and his staff are still debating the best method for treating trails in dead zones.
Currently Forest Service crews and adopt-a-trail teams are working hard to keep trails open by clearing fallen trees from popular trails and roads but, with all the trees down from the windy spring, "Some of the lesser used roads and trails may not get opened in the near future," Magwire said. "We hope everyone will understand and be patient with us."
In the meantime, the Forest Service is encouraging everyone traveling in the backcountry to carry at least a handsaw in their car, if not a chainsaw, in case a tree falls across a road and traps them.
"We won't be able to come out and get you," Magwire said.
The Forest Service is also issuing warnings to hikers and campers about the hazards of falling trees and urging recreationalists to use caution when traveling through dead forests.
The Forest Service is continuing to work on identifying smaller parcels of beetle kill in the district that need to be dealt with and is constantly working to maintain its trails and roads systems.
Meanwhile, a newly formed National Incident Management Organization for Bark Beetle Epidemic is providing support to the three most heavily impacted forests (Medicine Bow-Routt, Arapaho and Roosevelt, and White River National Forests) and helping to train and prepare local fire districts for a major wildfire.
Magwire said that as the beetle epidemic progresses new challenges are sure to arise: "I don't know what the last chapter will be," he said.
- Reid Armstrong can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610 or firstname.lastname@example.org.