Steamboat Springs — On the Steamboat Springs ski mountain and in campgrounds off Seedhouse Road, up Buffalo Pass and in the Rabbit Ears vicinity, U.S. Forest Service crews are pioneering the fine art of bark peeling.
This summer and fall is the third year in a row that beetle-killing crews, equaling about 40 men and women, have spanned popular spots in the Routt National Forest.
In most cases, they are chopping down beetle-infested trees and peeling the bark off them with modified chain saws lethally exposing the beetles as they prepare for the winter. The idea is to kill all the beetles in a certain area in the fall so healthy pine and spruce trees won’t get infested by the insects in the spring.
“It’s hard work,” said Jay Stalnacker, who cut and peeled trees this fall. “You just have to keep your head on so you don’t get hurt.”
With this effort, Forest Service officials are trying to do something that hasn’t been done before. They don’t want to put off the inevitable spruce and pine kills by two bark beetle epidemics in the forest they want to completely avoid it in some human valued spots. What makes the fight unique, compared to other forests that have tried and failed, is that officials had a couple of years’ jump-start on the spruce beetle epidemic by identifying a bulge in the insect’s population in the downed timber of the 1997 Routt Divide Blowdown early on.
This year, 1,500 to 2,000 beetle-infested trees will be peeled by the time winter sets in. That work, coupled with other smaller-scale methods of beetle killing, is estimated to protect about 5,000 acres of land, said Forest Service team leader Andy Cadenhead.
Though hefty numbers, the trees treated this year are about 1 percent of the number of trees that are infested with beetles in the Routt National Forest, which is more than a million acres in size, Cadenhead said.
That means the efforts won’t be stopping the pine beetle and spruce beetle epidemics, but it is hoped that campgrounds and the ski area will be protected.
Spots at the ski resort are showing signs of success with the pine beetle. That infestation is due to the insect’s natural population bulge every 12 years or so. In 1999 and 2000, about 150 pines at the ski resort were newly infested and killed. This summer, survey crews identified about 50 trees hit.
“That may be an indicator that lodgepole pine infestations are dropping off,” said Joe Foreman, who is heading up the beetle-suppression efforts for the Forest Service. “We would like to see that happen with the spruce.”
So far, it’s not looking too positive for spruce at the resort. The number of newly infested spruce trees are rising. Last year, survey crews found about 150 trees newly infested, which were treated. This year, 550 newly infested trees were found and are being treated. Next year, and the year after, will show if spruce beetle-suppression efforts at the resort are fleeting, Cadenhead said.
If they are, nearly all of the mature spruce trees there will be killed. Relative to the other trees at the resort, spruce trees, of all ages, are less than 15 percent of forests at the ski resort.
Meanwhile at the campgrounds, such as Seedhouse, Granite and Summit Lake, spruce beetle suppression tentatively looks promising, Cadenhead said.
Though areas surrounding the campgrounds are suffering some of the hardest hits from the beetles, the campgrounds have stayed steady with about 50 hits during the past two years. But the work isn’t being called a complete success.
“We won’t be able to declare clear victories for a number of years,” he said.
Suppression efforts are expected to last as long as epidemic, or until it’s clear the work is not making a difference.
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