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August 9, 2007

The Beetles Return to Colorado

The last time beatles invaded Colorado was 1964 and they only made it to the foothills of the Rockies. As the story goes, they were here for less than a day. And although they appeared at the storied Red Rocks amphitheater in Morrison for only about 35 minutes, they were able to inflict a considerable amount of their brand of "destruction" in that short time.

In terms of the most recent beetle invasion, however, it appears the visitors will be around for much longer -- and inflict a brand of destruction on the Rocky Mountain landscape that will, in retrospect, make John, Paul, George, and Ringo look merely like four harmless, long-haired kids from Liverpool who smoke cigarettes and play some newfangled kind of music that all the kids seem to love. And yes, even these beetles will not be loved by Boulderites.

I am speaking of course about the ubiquitous mountain pine beetle which is happily chewing its way through the vast coniferous forests of the North American continent. These beetles have yet to make their way to Red Rocks, but by the time they do, the damage will have been done.

Pine beetles, bark beetles and spruce beetles have always been part of the ecosystemic processes in the forests of Colorado. However, within the last 10 years, beetle populations have proliferated. Why? The answers range from the possibility that small increases in the temperature of the earth have created a more hospitable climate for the bugs; to a culture of fire suppression within the US Forest Service, that for over one hundred years took every effort possible to prevent and extinguish forest fires. But fire is a healthy and necessary part of some ecological systems, and perhaps we are beginning to see one of the consequences of its prevention. pine beetle, beetle kill, summit county, lodgepole pines, red, bark beetle

About 44 percent of the state’s 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pine are now infested by beetles, or about 660,000 acres. The dry, dead trees, which have a rusty red color, pose the biggest fire risk in the year or two before their needles fall off. The debate rages on concerning this epidemic which cannot be stopped. Some groups argue that the dead trees should be left standing, and that they will eventually fall to create the space and nutrients necessary for the flourishing of new ones. But others are fearful that this approach is far too risky. People who live in the resort towns like Steamboat, Vail, and Breckenridge (not to mention the resorts themselves), fear the potential devastation that could be wreaked by catastrophic, region-wide fires. Direct injury to property is hard to prevent because it is hard to anticipate; indirect injury and the concomitant economic losses are also likely but difficult to predict. Many high country residents would much rather see aggressive thinning programs aimed at reducing the fuel-wood in and around the urban-wildland interface. This might help, but thinning would seem to be only a drop in the bucket. With all but 100,000 acres of the dead trees in Colorado on federal land, the bulk of the thinning falls to the U.S. Forest Service, which plans to treat 18,000 acres of dead trees this year.

So if you have never had the opportunity to be awed what appears to be a never-ending expanse of lodgepole pine, or if you just haven't made it out west in a while, I would recommend you do so pretty soon -- before what people think of as the Rocky Mountain landscape, is only a distant memory.

thinning, forestry, fire-mitigation, pine-beetle

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