It's a feeling Magwire understands. "You get Bark beetle-killed pines as far as the eye can see in Granby, Colorado (right). Below, homes on the northern bank of Grand Lake used to be completely surrounded by pines. Many dead pines have been cleared, but there are many still standing. to that point where you have to decide," he says. "Do you want to continue to spray or just take out all the trees? It's a science decision and an emotional one and a financial one. It's all those things." Magwire himself lives in a wooded subdivision just north of Granby, where his homeowners' association has assessed residents thousands of dollars apiece for selective logging and aggressive spraying.
The effectiveness of spraying is the subject of much debate. In order to work, the chemicals must cover 100 percent of the tree, so a shoddy job or a too-tall tree can mean wasted money and needlessly dispersed poison, which some believe is killing songbirds. (One plus side of the epidemic, though, has been a noticeable spike in the local population of woodpeckers, which feed on the beetles.)
Indeed, not all the beetles have wrought is bad. Allergy sufferers breathe easier thanks to less pine pollen in the air. Sales of chainsaws and related merchandise -- chains, chaps, hard hats -- are up. Free firewood is everywhere. People have learned to revere healthy forests in a way they didn't before and are learning how to better manage them.
Still, the daily nuisances remain: fallen trees blocking roads, basements flooding from increased soil moisture, arguments among neighbors over whose property lines the beetles crossed. And concern is rising over the impact on the recreation industry, an integral part of the county's economy. "If you have a choice between a green forest and a dead forest, where would you build your million-dollar resort?" muses Ron Cousineau, district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service's Granby District.
"Things are going to become a lot more difficult to do out in the woods," says Nelson, the Winter Park town manager. The community's economy is bound to suffer if hikers, bikers and hunters choose to visit greener pastures. "Are people going to want to come hike when all the trails are blocked or there's danger of getting killed by a falling tree?" Henry asks.
The crisis isn't limited to Grand County; trees in Summit and Routt counties are also dying. But Grand's problems resonate beyond the immediate area. Denver Water, the water utility for 1.3 million residents of Denver and the surrounding suburbs, gets a quarter of its supplies from a collection system that includes Grand County. Wildfires lead to erosion, and erosion clogs reservoirs with sediment that costs millions of dollars to remove. "It causes the soil chemistry to change," says Don Kennedy, an environmental scientist with the utility's planning division, "so you get these hydrophobic soils that repel water." When heavy rains come, the water races over the denuded landscape with its water-repellent soil, causing huge amounts of erosion. Denver Water is working with a long list of organizations -- including Winter Park and the Forest Service -- to prioritize key areas for logging. "It's a lot cheaper to address it now than later," says Kennedy. "Nobody wants to spend $25 million on removing sediment out of the reservoir."
Grand County's outbreak seems to be finally slowing, compared to other areas of the state that are a few years behind it. Once the mature trees are all dead, the beetles will have nothing to feed on, and it is hoped that their populations will then crash. Nelson believes the area faces four more years of cutting, hauling and fire mitigation, and he fears that a huge wildfire somewhere in central Colorado is all but inevitable.
Still, several decades from now, Grand County's slopes might once again be covered in living forests, with diverse stands of pine, aspen, spruce and fir that will be better able to withstand another onslaught. Charles Henry likes to envision that day. "We're not going to live here forever," he says of his former paradise. "My goal would be to put it in a land conservancy and sell it to someone who'll keep it as forest. I'm hoping that by spending the money to remove the dead trees and get this forest process started sooner, in five to 10 years, when I'm ready to sell it, I have a more desirable property than someone who hasn't done it. I'm trying to be altruistic about the forest value, but there's a mercenary, a dollar-and-cents factor underneath."
Hillary Rosner's articles on science and the environment have appeared recently in Newsweek, Popular Science, OnEarth, and Audubon.
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