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
 

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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."

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