Summit study: Beetle outbreak improves community support for forest management

Deepan Dutta
Summit Daily
Dead lodgepole pines are common in the Ted’s Ridge area at Steamboat Resort.
Matt Stensland

The Mountain Pine Beetle outbreak from 1996 to 2014 affected 3.4 million acres of forestland across Colorado, turning forests all over central and northern Colorado into veritable tree graveyards in the years since.

At the plague’s peak in 2007, half the trees in Summit County turned a rusty, muddy red that blazed dimly across the hills and valleys. Given a lack of research as to how the visual impact of insect infestations affect the human psyche, researchers sought to understand how people perceive risk of fire, economic and other impacts as the forest colors change.

That’s why in 2007, researchers conducted a study in nine mountain communities that formed Ground Zero of the state’s beetle outbreak — Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco, Silverthorne, Granby, Kremmling, Steamboat Springs, Vail and Walden — to see how the visual impact of the devastation influenced community perceptions of fire risk and forest management.

A decade later, researchers are conducting another study to determine whether community perceptions have changed, as the pine beetle cycle finally diminished from 2011–14. The study was conducted through a few hundred completed surveys, interviews with key stakeholders, media analysis of local newspapers and other data.

At Tuesday’s meeting of Summit County’s Forest Health Task Force, researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Missouri presented findings from the current study.

Presenting were Jamie Vickery, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Elizabeth Prentice, a doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant at the University of Missouri. Assistant professor Hua “James” Qin of the University of Missouri was principal investigator, while Hannah Brenkert-Smith of the University of Colorado Boulder was co-principal investigator.

Some of the key takeaways from the study’s results include how public perception of fire risk has been affected by the changing of colors as the beetles infested, sickened and eventually killed trees.

When beetles infest a pine tree, they lay eggs under the bark and create a blue stain fungi in their wake. The larvae that hatch feast on the tree while the fungus prevents the tree from protecting itself, as well as blocking off water and food flow wherever it sits. Eventually, within a few weeks, the tree gets ‘girdled’ by the fungus and no nutrients can pass through.

As a result, the tree’s needles start to lose chlorophyll, which give the needles their normal green color, and turn yellowish-red and then red, before falling off and leaving the tree standing as a blanched wooden skeleton.

In 2007, the trees were in the ‘red’ phase after a season or two of infestation. Back then, resident concerns about fire risk were high, as well as the perceived impact the dying forests would have on local tourism, economy and property values.

The current study found that since trees shed their needles and turned grey, perception of wildfire risk remained somewhat the same, but not as strongly held as before. Moreover, the fears about economic and social impacts greatly diminished when the blazing red forests turned ashen.

Based on what they found, researchers believe that something as simple as the color of the trees may affect levels of concern and public interest. When the trees were red, there was more uncertainty and anxiety about what the future would hold. Nowadays, even as stark and ugly as the dead grey trees look, they seem to pose somewhat less of a threat than when they were red.

Another key takeaway is that while the mountain pine beetle epidemic may have devastated forests, it also seemed to invigorate a more cohesive community attitude toward forest management.

Qualitative findings from interviews showed convergence in support or acceptance of forest management, indicating people are more willing to let land managers perform wildfire mitigation tasks including clear-cutting and thinning.

However, communities want to have more of a say in forest management — there was broad consensus among interviewees that they want more of a say in how lands are managed, even more than people in distant areas like Washington, D.C., who do not have to live with the consequences of foresting decisions.

The researchers also found that the public is generally cognizant of resource constraints that prevent land management agencies from being able to do more to mitigate fire danger.

These findings will help guide future decisions on forest management, including how to communicate with the public, how to form policy around forest management, and how to create messaging campaigns for maximum depth and impact.

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