A slow-moving disaster

by Hillary Rosner

Back in 1997, when Charles and Nancy Henry moved full-time to their 38.5 acres outside Granby, Colo., it seemed like paradise. The property sits at 8,600 feet, with aspen groves behind the house and a 360-degree view of lodgepole pine forest. A semi-retired agricultural reporter and the son of a forester, Henry set about restoring his patch of long-neglected, largely overgrown forest -- thinning lodgepole pines here, doing small clear-cuts there, removing mistletoe and helping create a more diverse ecosystem to replace the homogenous stands of pine. "It was a gorgeous place to live," Henry says. "Every way you looked was something pretty. It was something we worked very hard for and finally realized."

Today, though, the Henrys are stewards of acres of wasted trees, and their mountain retreat looks out on a natural -- or semi-natural -- disaster. "Every day I look out and say, 'Ugh.' I just hate it," says Henry. Encouraged by rising temperatures and homogenous forests, mountain pine beetles began rampaging through Grand County five years ago, laying siege to nearly 550,000 acres of lodgepole pines overcrowded from decades of fire suppression. Henry's focus on his own property shifted as he joined in the ongoing battle to lower the risk of a catastrophic wildfire. He's determined to make the next-generation forest a healthy one even if he won't be there to see it. His 16 remaining acres of pine forest will soon be clear-cut, to make way for the regeneration process.

"Look at all the little lodgepoles!" he says on a cool May morning, as he gazes at a small area that he clear-cut seven years ago to control mistletoe -- an invasive weed -- and combat a porcupine problem. A green island in a brown ocean of rigid, spiritless trees, Henry's patch of clear-cut now teems with eight-foot aspens and a flourishing crop of knee-high baby lodgepoles. It's enough to make Henry smile, for a few moments at least, until he looks up the slope again. "Our goal is to get these dead trees out of here before one tree falls and knocks out three little healthy ones."

These days in Grand County, a haven of mountains, rivers, lakes and evergreen forests in north-central Colorado that includes a portion of Rocky Mountain National Park, the impacts of the pine beetle epidemic are as much a fact of daily life as snow in winter. The first part of Colorado hit by the beetles, it's also the farthest along on the trajectory of forest death. These days, residents are coping with everything from an unexpected lack of privacy as their now-treeless homes are suddenly exposed, to the financial burden of tree removal or spraying. There's a low-grade paranoia about trees falling -- on homes, power lines, boats, even people. In October 2008, a beetle-kill pine fell and killed a logger from Granby as he was removing slash in the town of Grand Lake. Earlier the same month, another man was knocked to the ground by a dead lodgepole; he survived.

The debate over the ecological implications of the beetle epidemic -- and which misguided policies are to blame for it -- rages on. But in places like Grand County, there's a far more immediate concern: how to cope with the new reality the thumbtack-size bugs have created. "It's like dealing with a disaster that moves slowly and never goes away," says Craig Magwire, district ranger for the Forest Service's Sulphur Ranger District. "As opposed to a fire event, where you bring in resources and work the fire and then you go home. Here, it's continuous."

The overwhelming concern in Grand County is that this slow disaster could become a very fast one if a wildfire rages through these desiccated forests. Such a fire would destroy homes and businesses -- and possibly people. On a wall in the Forest Service's conference room, a large map dotted with dark areas shows 16,000 acres where trees were cut in an effort to create fuel breaks. Some of these are deep in the forest; others are next to towns. The Forest Service is trying to lower the chances that a wildfire will prove devastating, but as Magwire himself admits, they're just tweaking the odds. The Sulphur District contains 185,000 acres of lodgepole-dominated forests, and most of the trees are already dead. When they fall, they will produce a dangerous mass of fuel on the forest floor. "We couldn't remove trees on all those acres even if we wanted to," Magwire says. "The money isn't there to do that, and there isn't an industry there that could use the material."

As the region goes into what Winter Park's town manager, Drew Nelson, calls "full-on clear-cut mode," what to do with all that wood is becoming an ever-tougher problem. The Forest Service holds timber sales on 1,000-acre parcels, and every Sulphur District sale for the past eight years has found a buyer. But the downturn in the housing market could change that, and in turn curtail Magwire's forest-thinning operations, potentially tipping the odds back in wildfire's favor. "The biggest concern today is, if we don't have a timber industry, how are we going to move material out of the woods?" says Magwire. "In order for us to do our job, we need to have a market."

Although the Forest Service has so far been able to profit from selling its timber, homeowners, subdivisions and even town governments are spending a fortune to cut down their trees. It has cost homeowners from $100 to have one or two trees cut down and hauled away to $20 apiece for 1,000 trees, though costs have dropped considerably during the economic downturn.

The town of Winter Park uses funds from a mill levy to pay foresters to collect trees that residents remove from their property. Five days a week, they haul them to an air curtain burner, which combusts the wood without spewing smoke into the valley. "It'd be great if we could've figured out some way to harness all of this energy that's just escaping," says Nelson, "but unfortunately the epidemic was just so fast that there really wasn't this great plan -- 'Oh, wow, we could put a wood-burning stove in every house and it would heat the county for years to come.' " According to Russ Chameroy, Winter Park's public works director, only two companies within two hours of the town are still taking in wood; both are mills that produce pellets for stoves, and both have pellets stacked as far as you can see. One mill reportedly has enough pellets for 175 years' worth of burning.

Small businesses have opened up to make furniture and paneling out of the beetle-kill wood, which is stained a bluish shade from a fungus the beetles inject. (The window for using the trees for structural products, such as 2-by-4s, is brief once the beetles invade.) But these companies, too, have been hobbled by the downturn. And even if the economy were booming, they could utilize only a fraction of all the timber coming down.

On a blue-sky Colorado morning, Bruce Van Bockern stops his truck on a hill overlooking Grand Lake. The panoramas are spectacular -- and new. Houses that once faced woods now have unobstructed lake views, a fact that local real estate agents hope to exploit. "You couldn't see a house up here two years ago," says Van Bockern, operations manager for Mountain Parks Electric, the local power co-op. Some days he suddenly doesn't quite know where he is. "I've gone into some subdivisions that you don't even recognize because there are no trees," he says. One local logging company has even begun using the slogan, "Creating new views."

Van Bockern, whose sons capitalized on the beetle infestation with summer logging jobs, spends the bulk of his time trying to ensure that trees don't fall on power lines. Of the co-op's 1,388 miles of overhead power lines, 460 are bordered by trees. But it's not the dead trees Van Bockern worries about. Lodgepoles live in groups, where their numbers help protect them from the wind. When only a few live trees remain, there's nothing to shield them. Compounding the problem, dead trees don't soak up water -- or hold snow -- so spring runoff causes excess soil moisture, weakening the live trees' roots. Van Bockern stops to examine a beautiful two-foot-wide lodgepole that leans precipitously toward a nearby house. On the ground, a break is already visible in the soil where the tree's roots are coming loose.

Up the road, in a subdivision called Woodpecker Hill, the sound of chainsaws fills the air. Groups of dead lodgepoles and spindly looking live ones still tower above some houses, but everywhere the ground is littered with fallen timber. An early May windstorm that blew through here sent scores of trees crashing to the ground; dead ones snapped, live ones were uprooted, and several toppled on cabins and outbuildings. Paul Shelley, an electrician who lives on a corner lot, is out doing never-ending yard work: burning a slash pile and plotting an outline for a log border around his property. "We use the wood any way we can," he says. A few feet from the side of Shelley's house, a lone lodgepole is still bushy and green -- except for the top, where death is creeping in. A band of blue ribbon marks it for pesticide application, revealing that even though many people here have resigned themselves to clear-cutting, emotional attachments to beloved trees linger. "We've sprayed this tree for years," Shelley says. "This is the one tree my wife's real sentimental about."

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.

To learn more:

Global Warming's Unlikely Harbingers

Colorado State University pine beetle fact sheet.

Mountain pine beetle info from barkbeetle.org.

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