A slow-moving disaster

Communities struggle to adapt to a beetle-ravaged landscape.

  • Mountain pine beetle

    Kira Horvath
  • Charles Henry walks through the devastated forest on his property near Granby, Colorado, soon to be clear-cut to control the beetle.

    Kira Horvath
  • Bark beetle-killed pines as far as the eye can see in Granby, Colorado.

    Kira Horvath
  • 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.

    Kira Horvath

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."

High Country News Classifieds