Even as trees fall, new forest grows By Leah Todd July 18, 2012 This story is the third in a series examining the effects of the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic on forests, wildlife and wildfires, and highlighting the U.S. Forest Service’s efforts in managing the situation.
U.S. Forest Service forester Christie Schneider walks through a clearing dotted with 1,600 Engelmann spruce seedlings at Silver Lake campground. The seedlings barely reach the height of her hiking boots, and each one is protected by a tubular tree shelter marked with a little pink flag. “This really isn’t the death of a forest,” Schneider said, scanning the campground that has been closed since 2007. “This is the birth of a forest.” Schneider directs reforestation efforts for the U.S.Forest Service, writing and carrying out contracts with commercial loggers that harvest beetle-killed trees throughout Medicine BowRoutt National Forest. So far this year she has overseen 11 replanting projects. “When the planters are here, I’m around the whole time,” Schneider said. “Making sure things go right.” In October 2011, a contractor out of Fort Collins, Colo., harvested 3,065 trees from Silver Lake campground. In June, local volunteers and an Oregon-based planting contractor planted 1,600 3-year-old Engelmann spruce seedlings in the campground. The seedlings were grown from local seed that was extracted from Medicine Bow National Forest years ago and stored at a U.S. Forest Service nursery in Nebraska. The replanting is just one of the U.S. Forest Service’s projects in managing a National Forest riddled with 40 million acres of beetle-killed trees. Replanting comes as a last resort of sorts; it is an expensive proposition, according to Schneider. It became a method of management for the Forest Service only after its attempts at beetle-kill prevention proved an impermanent solution. “Prevention? We tried,” Schneider said. “There was a lot of prevention in this campground.” The Forest Service used a naturally occurring chemical compound to protect healthy trees from beetle infestations in Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. The chemical, called a pheromone, triggers a specific social response among a certain species. “It gives out the message(to the beetles) that this tree is full, and that there’s no more room for any beetles,” Schneider said. “There’s another pheromone that does the other thing, that says ‘Come on in’. We attract (the beetles) to the tree and cut it down, drawing them in from the surrounding forest.”
The Forest Service had used this approach on healthy trees since about 2007, but the method no longer worked after a few years of incessant beetle activity. Schneider said she witnessed an entirely new behavior in the Mountain Pine Beetle during this epidemic: nests of beetles burrowed underground in a tree’s root system for protection during winter. “These beetles have rewritten the book of how beetles work,” Schneider said. In addition to its efforts at prevention, the U.S. Forest Service has identified and targeted hazard areas where trees will be removed for safety’s sake. U.S. Forest Service Public Affairs Specialist Larry Sandoval said the Forest Service’s main goal has been reducing threats to life and property. “Mitigation has been the biggest focus to date with the epidemic,” Sandoval said. “If (dead trees) are standing and they’re along a roadside or a campground, our policy says we need to manage those trees so we can make sure those areas are safe from trees falling,” In 2011, on the Wyoming side of Medicine Bow National Forest, the Forest Service harvested dead trees from 401 acres of campgrounds and work sites, and from alongside more than 117 miles of roads, trails and power lines. Planned for Medicine Bow National Forest in fiscal year 2012 are dead tree removals from 150 acres of campgrounds and work sites, and from along 95 miles of roads, trails and power lines. Replanting occurs only in high-value areas like campgrounds, and in harvested areas that will not regenerate naturally. There are special challenges to growing trees in a campground, according to Schneider. “People step on them,” Schneider said. “It’s not that people want to harm the trees, it’s just that they don’t see them.” Helpful in protecting the tiny trees are tree shelters, made by wrapping sheets of bendy plastic around the seedlings. “The tree shelters are like little greenhousesfor the trees,” Schneider said. “It helps retain moisture and keeps the temperature higher in the winter.” Climate conditions at high altitudes make survival tough for seedlings, Schneider said. Silver Lake Campground sits at an elevation of 10,400feet, and its long winters make for a short growing season. Winds here mercilessly dry trees out, and can knock even deeply rooted trees to the ground. Piles of branches from felled trees are interspersed among damaged picnic tables at Silver Lake
Campground. Bare stumps from harvested trees stick up from the ground. There is still work to be done here before the campground’s reopening, Schneider said, which she hoped would be sometime in September. “The Mountain Pine Beetles have reached their zenith here,” Schneider said. “Last year I saw very few new infestations. There are not a lot of sufficient trees to brood in anymore.” And according to Sandoval, the story of the Medicine Bow National Forest is just starting to be retold. “We want to be able to look back a century from now and say we’ve learned from that 2000s epidemic,” Sandoval said. “There are things you can’t control—such as drought and the number of beetles—but we certainly do have control over the ways we manage the forest.” Schneider challenges Medicine Bow hikers and passers-by to look at what is growing in the forest’s understory. “It’s easy to focus on the dead trees,” Schneider said. “But it’s those new trees that are our future forest.”