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A PASSION FOR PEOPLE AND PAINT Business man earns respect of workers, community

TOASTING OASTING SUMMER

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SUNDAY, JULY 27, 2008

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VOLUME 122, NUMBER 2 • STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, COLORADO • www.steamboatpilot.com

THE LAST STAND The mountain pine beetle and the West’s dying forests A five-part series by the Steamboat Pilot & Today

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moke dances in the breeze above a smoldering slash pile at the Red Creek subdivision in North Routt County. Beyond a rise, an empty field slopes toward a swath of red — and dead — lodgepole pines. With the loss of thousands of trees to the mountain pine beetle, Jim Burton and his neighbors are learning a harsh lesson on the fluid nature of the forest. “These forests have been doing this for millions of years,” Burton said, “and we want to freeze them in time. But it doesn’t work. And that was very hard to accept. “At the beginning, we were all in denial. They were telling us we needed to thin, and people just didn’t want to believe it. We just loved them to death.”

This week: A battle lost

Part 2: Fumbled forest

Part 3: Boon or bust?

Part 4: The red scare

Pumps could become park Supporters: Space Station site ideal Blythe Terrell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS

When landscape designer Lisa Lee Benjamin looks at the fences and abandoned fuel pumps at Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue, she sees a community gathering spot and green space. Benjamin is part of a push, backed by Mainstreet Steamboat Springs, to replace the Space Station site with a park. The gas station and Go-Fer Foods convenience store, on a corner lot in downtown Steamboat Springs, have been closed since December 2006. Benjamin, principal of Evo Design LLC, said she has been mulling the idea since the Space Station shut its doors. She said she has been working on preliminary designs for the 15,000square-foot property. “I think as we’ve expanded, the community is kind of disjointed,” she said of Steamboat. “I’m just thinking about how public space can create community. I think that’d be great.” Grand Junction-based Monument Oil owns the Space Station, and its executives couldn’t be reached for comment. Buying the property will be tough, Mainstreet Program PAGE DESIGNED BY NICOLE MILLER

Buying into biomass Oak Creek considers sustainable future Melinda Dudley PILOT & TODAY STAFF

Share your ideas

PILOT & TODAY STAFF

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS

To share your ideas about the future of the Space Station gas and Go-Fer Foods convenience store site in downtown Steamboat Springs, contact Jon Sanders of Colorado Group Realty at 870-0552 or jonwsanders@mybrokers. com

Manager Tracy Barnett said. She said proponents of the park have yet to meet with Monument’s Paul Brown, whose family has owned the site for years. Fundraising and partnerships with the city will be crucial to paying for the project, Barnett said. “I think if there’s enough people who think it’s a good idea, we’ll find the money,” she said. In Benjamin’s vision, the park would have an amphitheater for events and outdoor movies. She would like to see Butcherknife Creek uncovered; the waterway runs diagonally below the property. Not only would a park create a gathering place in the heart of downtown, but it also would improve the ecology by housing insects and animals, Benjamin said. She said she plans to work on concepts during the next several weeks. See Park, page 12A

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Mainstreet Steamboat Springs and some residents are pushing for the former Space Station gas station and Go-Fer Foods convenience store to be turned into a park.

INSIDE

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LAST WEEK: Do you think Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall should resign in light of his DWAI conviction? Results/5A THIS WEEK: Do you think the mountain pine beetle epidemic will hurt tourism in Northwest Colorado?

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A quarter century ago, downtown St. Paul, Minn., formed an energy district that would provide heat and power through hot water. Today, District Energy St. Paul’s customers pay less in real dollars than they did when the system was launched in 1983. “We’ve had a below-inflation increase. No one else in the country can say that,” said Bill Mahlum, executive vice president and general counsel of Ever-Green Energy, the forprofit affiliate of District Energy St. Paul. And they built their district energy system when energy was “cheap,” Mahlum said. In South Routt County, where propane is the primary source of heat for businesses and residences, preliminary plans for converting to an alternative energy source are in the works as propane costs continue to rise. After hovering at about $1 per gallon for most of the 1990s, the average price per gallon of propane for residential customers jumped to more than $2.60 by the end of the 2007-08 winter, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. And costs for the petroleum-derived

DELIVERY PROBLEM?

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Part 5: Rebirth

fuel only are increasing. The town of Oak Creek looked into the feasibility of bringing piped natural gas to town, which was both cleaner and cheaper, in 2000. However, the town’s small size made such a project cost-prohibitive. Now, the town is in the early stages of looking into a biomass system similar to that which has been heralded as a grandiose success in Minnesota. Despite being the “sustainable solution” to rising energy costs, biomass still is being examined only “very gingerly,” said Leonard Phillips, director of business development for the Massachusetts-based International District Energy Association. District energy systems, delivering heat power through steam or water heated by a variety of fuels, long have been popular overseas and are found in the United States at universities and on commercial and industrial campuses. Downtown St. Paul, which has had a district energy system for 25 years and has relied primarily on wood chips as fuel since 2003, is the largest hot water district energy system in the country. District Energy St. Paul reaches 3 million people in St. See Biomass, page 12A

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THE LAST STAND The mountain pine beetle and the West’s dying forests A five-part series by the Steamboat Pilot & Today ❖ Part 1, July 27, 2008

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

A stand of beetle-killed pine trees glow in the late-afternoon sunlight in North Routt County. The mountain pine beetle has impacted more than 134,000 acres of lodgepole pine in 2007 in Routt County, an increase of nearly 55,000 acres from 2006.

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A battle lost

The war is over. The beetle won. From Gore Pass to Mount Werner to Hahn’s Peak, red, beetle-killed pines are dramatically altering the treasured landscapes of Northwest Colorado. We are not alone. In an epidemic unfathomable in its scale, the mountain pine beetle is decimating forests across the Rocky Mountain West and beyond. In just three to five years, the majority of Colorado’s large-diameter lodgepole pine trees will be dead. “I think most forest experts would agree that … this is unprecedented from a historical perspective and some would argue from an ecological perspective, as well,” said John

STORY BY BRANDON GEE PHOTOS BY MATT STENSLAND Twitchell, a Steamboat Springsbased forester with the Colorado State Forest Service. “Epidemics from Canada to Mexico are absolutely unprecedented from the historical record.” In the swaths of red bleeding across the forests, some see the death of a treasured landscape, fire dangers and a troubling environmental fallout. Others see economic opportunity and rebirth. In The Last Stand, the Steamboat Pilot & Today will chart this red sea across five Sunday installments.

Part 1: A battle lost

The social and emotional impacts of our changing forests.

Part 2: Fumbled forest

Mismanagement and nature combine to spawn an insect epidemic of unprecedented proportions.

Part 3: Boon or bust?

From biomass and logging to property values and tourism, dead timber presents economic challenges and opportunities.

Part 4: The red scare

What will happen when the red sea turns orange? A look at fire and other risks posed by millions of acres of dead and dying trees.

Part 5: Rebirth

Even as trees continue to fall prey to the bark beetle, a new forest is emerging from the scarred landscape.


2F | STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 1 ❖ SUNDAY, JULY 27, 2008

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Jim Burton, right, and his neighbor Ron Willhide walk along a road in their Red Creek subdivision in North Routt County. The area to the right of the road was logged to get rid of mature and infested lodgepole pine trees.The area to the left of the road has not been logged.

Dealing with denial Communities cope with reality of unprecedented beetle epidemic Mountain pine beetle Dendroctonus ponderosae Hopkins

FAQs Q. What is the mountain pine beetle? A. The insect is a member of the bark beetle family and is the most damaging pest of pine trees in western North America. Q. How long do they live? A. About one year.

The worst was yet to come. Next it was 100 trees, then 200, then 1,000. Now, Burton and his fellow homeowners are having 15,000 to 20,000 trees removed from their subdivision — and wishing they had taken a different tact. “At the beginning, we were all in denial,” Burton said. “They were telling us we needed to thin, and people just didn’t want to believe it. We just loved them to death.” Foresters are just as guilty; however, and it is unlikely any amount of prevention would have thwarted what most now accept as fact. “The situation is, all of your trees are going to die,” said John Twitchell, a Steamboat Springs-based district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service. Burton’s experience is a microcosm of the forest management — or mismanagement — practices

that have contributed to an unprecedented epidemic across the state and the Rocky Mountains, from British Columbia to Mexico, as far west as California and as far east as the Dakotas. The mountain pine beetle likely will kill the majority of Colorado’s large-diameter lodgepole pine trees within the next three to five years, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Diann Ritschard, a local spokeswoman for the federal forest service, said that in typical years, between 20 and 30 dead trees are removed from campgrounds across Routt County. This year, thousands of dead trees are being removed. “We’re losing the battle,” Twitchell said. “It’s a drastic change in appearance. … I think the ‘Oh, my God’ factor is going to be pretty high this year.” See Forests, page 3F

Q. Where do they live? A. The range of the beetle extends from Mexico to British Columbia. They breed in lodgepole, ponderosa, whitebark, limber and white pines. Q. What damage do they cause? A. The beetles attack and kill mature pine trees by introducing blue-stain fungi, which cuts off the tree’s water supply.

Lifecycle (July to August) Beetles emerge from dead, infested tree and fly to attack a new healthy, green host tree.

Q. Do they have natural enemies? A. Birds eat large numbers of insects. Parasites and fungal diseases also attack the beetle but have little effect on epidemic populations. Q. Will low temperatures kill the beetle? A. Early-fall and late-spring hard freezes will kill large numbers of beetles. Midwinter deep freezes will not increase mortality rates because the beetle already has built up natural defenses.

(Early August) Female drills inside bark, eats path straight up tree trunk, laying eggs along the way.

Eggs

Q. How far can they fly? A. Mountain pine beetles can fly up to six miles. Q. What is their role in the environment? A. Beetle outbreaks remove over-mature pines from a stand to allow other tree species to take over.

Parent adult

Brood adult

Red needles: Tree is dead

JOHN F. RUSSELL/STAFF

Andy Cadenhead, who works for the U.S. Forest Service, points to the larvae of a mountain pine beetle he found under the bark of a tree on Rabbit Ears Pass. The beetles are threatening forests across the western United States and Canada.

▲ Actual size

Pupae (June to July) Beetles mine the layer of the tree between the bark and wood, cutting off nutrients and killing the tree.

Green needles: Tree is alive

(August to September)

trees. Their fallen needles pad the ground, choking the forest floor and smothering other growth between the slender trunks. Left alone, a lodgepole pine will grow bushy and broad. But in stands, competing for sunlight, they race to the sky, and their limbs are sparse and high. In the early evening, rays of sunlight sneak through the thin, green needles and fall to the ground like strands of blond hair, granting one the twin satisfactions of lying under a tree and the sun. Colorado blue spruce may be the state tree, but it’s easy to understand why lodgepole pine is the unofficial favorite in the hearts of many Coloradans. “People love these trees,” said Jim Burton, who owns a home in the Red Creek subdivision in North Routt County, “and now they’re dying.” Burton moved to Red Creek in 2001. In 2002, he met the mountain pine beetle, a pesky insect the size of a grain of rice that had the gall to kill 40 of his and his neighbors’ stately old trees. They had the dead trees removed, but they ignored a forester’s recommendation to thin their woods of some of the live trees as a preventive measure. “You thought you were cutting off people’s left arm taking 40 trees,” Burton said. “I’ve had property owners crying, absolutely crying, because they were losing all these trees.”

Yellow needles: Tree is dying

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here’s nothing quite as serene as lying under a stand of lodgepole pine

Larvae (September to June) Eggs turn to larvae and eat paths into the tree, perpendicular to first vertical path.

SOURCES: U.S. FOREST SERVICE, GOVERNMENT OF BRITISH COLUMBIA. GRAPHIC: NICOLE MILLER/STAFF


STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 1 ❖ SUNDAY, JULY 27, 2008

| 3F

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

North Routt County resident Jim Burton looks at sap oozing from a pine tree in his subdivision. The tree attempts to defend itself by pushing the pine beetle out with sap.

Forests continued from 2F

No refuge Steve Gilbreath strolls happily out of his camper to welcome visitors to Lodgepole Campground in the Gunnison National Forest. The setting sun glows orange off the trunks of the campground’s namesake trees as the Taylor River flows nearby. “We’ve been coming up here to camp in the canyon since I was a kid,” said Gilbreath, a retired Texan who spends his summers as Lodgepole Campground’s host. “It would absolutely just kill me to see all this die out. If we couldn’t come up here and spend our summer, I don’t know what we’d do. … The spruce are nice, and they’re kind of pretty, but these lodgepole are pretty unique.” From Gore Pass to Mount Werner to Hahn’s Peak, red trees are increasingly redefining the landscape of Northwest Colorado. But you have to look pretty hard in the Gunnison National Forest to find evidence of the mountain pine beetle. It could be only a matter of time, however, before the area succumbs to the insect, said Roy Mask, a Gunnisonbased entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service. Throughout the continent, beetles are thriving in some altitudes and climes like never before because of higher temperatures. Scientists in British Columbia, home to the largest mountain pine beetle infestation in North America, are performing studies with troubling implications. Eighty percent of the province’s lodgepole pines are expected to be dead by 2013, according

I

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Mountain pine beetles are reflected in the sun as they take flight from dead trees to new host trees in late June on Rabbit Ears Pass.

to Natural Resources Canada. Compared to 1.5 million acres in Colorado, British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests and Ranges estimates the cumulative area of the province affected by the pine beetle to be 33.3 million acres, or about four times the size of Vancouver Island. After a freak wind event that sent the beetles across the Rockies into Alberta in 2006, Dr. Dezene Huber at the University of Northern British Columbia began researching the possibility that the epidemic could spread through Canada’s boreal forest all the way to the eastern seaboard and dip into the U.S. through the heavily pined Great Lakes and midAtlantic regions. “I hope it doesn’t,” Huber said. “I’m always sort of optimistic. In the same vein, we never thought it would blow up in these parts like it did. … It’s amazing what these guys will do in high numbers.” See Forests, page 4F

Dead tree tips Falling trees always are a hazard when traveling in the forest. Following these safety guidelines will help reduce your risk: ■ Be aware of your surroundings. Avoid dense patches of dead trees; they can fall without warning. ■ Stay out of the forest when there are strong winds that could blow trees down. If you already are in the forest when the winds pick up, head to a clearing out of reach of any potential falling trees. ■ Place tents and park vehicles in areas where they will not be hit if trees fall. ■ When driving in remote areas of the forest, park close to a main road rather than on a one-way section. If trees fall across the road, you may be trapped. ■ Bring an ax or a chain saw to remove fallen trees from roads in case you become trapped. ■ Do not rely on cell phones for safety as there is no coverage in many areas of the national forest. Source: Diann Ritschard, U.S. Forest Service

Turning of the evergreens

f anyone has a newfound appreciation for the dangers posed by dead, standing trees, it’s Sheila Wright, development director for Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. On June 19, Wright was walking around the Seedhouse Campground in North Routt County, where corps members were busy clearing the closed campsite of hazard trees. As Wright passed under an enormous beetle-killed tree, a 5-footlong limb — known as a widow maker — crashed down in front of her feet. “That would have hurt, you guys,” Wright exclaimed after initially laughing. “That would have freaking hurt!” Minutes earlier, on her first drive up Seedhouse Road this year, Wright was shocked at how much the scenery has changed since last year. “We were up here last summer, and I just don’t remember all this beetlekill,” Wright said. “Look at all that beetle-kill. It’s so ... evident.” All across Seedhouse Campground, red-needled lodgepole pines stick up into the air like rusty spears, piles of logs occupy campsites instead of tents, and the sound of chain saws competes

1

Planning the attack How beetles carry out the invasion 2

Mountain pine beetle bores into the tree and lays eggs.

Tree pumps sap toward beetle to eject it. Sap is the tree’s only defense against the pine beetle.

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps crew members Sarah Yardley, left, and Cassie Moreschi stack logs at Seedhouse Campground in North Routt County.

with the gushing Middle Fork of the Elk River. Run your hand over a branch, and the crispy needles fall away like hair out of a brush. “It’s shocking, it’s depressing, but it’s not surprising,” said 19-year-old corps member Sarah Yardley of New Jersey. “It’s scary. I’m more worried than anything.” Wright said the mountain pine beetle promises to keep Yardley and her Rocky Mountain Youth Corps successors busy for a number of years. Never has Wright seen one thing so thoroughly dominate the corps’ schedule. “We have never had a dedicated crew just to mitigate beetle-kill,” Wright said.

This year they have two such crews. “It kind of takes over the landscape,” Andreas Kavountzis, a 20-year-old corps member from New Jersey, said while sharpening a chain saw. “Dead trees everywhere. It’s real depressing.” Yardley said the scene looked familiar. Her family owns a second home in Grand County, where the extent of the beetle’s destruction is second only to British Columbia. “It looks like it’s fall,” Yardley said of Grand County, “but evergreens aren’t supposed to turn brown.”

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4

Beetle calls for reinforcements. More beetles arrive and eat at right angles to original path.

Fungus on the beetle strangles the tree’s water flow. This fungus is called blue stain.

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Tree dies. Dead tree protects beetle larvae during winter.

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Adult beetles burrow out of the tree in spring and fly to uninfected trees.

SOURCE: U.S. FOREST SERVICE GRAPHIC: NICOLE MILLER/STAFF. PHOTOS: MATT STENSLAND/STAFF


4F |

STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 1 ❖ SUNDAY, JULY 27, 2008

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Geof Magrath, associate pro at the Prince George Golf and Curling Club in British Columbia, watches golfers through the dead lodgepole pines, which were the dominant species at the course. The club is building a new course in an area that has very little pine.

Forests continued from 3F

The forest lifestyle In a state so largely defined by its appearance and recreational offerings, it’s hard to understate the impact of the mountain pine beetle in Colorado. And it’s easy to understand the anger and frustration that has accompanied it. “They’re just beautiful trees, and that’s what people thought they were buying into,” Burton said about himself and his North Routt County neighbors. “They thought they were moving into a mature forest. Well, it is mature, but it’s also ready to move on. “Sometimes you got to get run over before you realize you’re in the middle of the road. And that’s what happened to us. It’s very sad. Here’s a 75-foot tree. All of a sudden it’s infected with beetles. … You just can’t replace that tree. You can’t do it. If you had all the money in the world, you can’t replace it.” The aesthetics alone are overwhelming, but the beetle is having more concrete impacts on mountain life that will be felt for years to come. According to Mary Ann Chambers, spokeswoman for the Mountain Pine Beetle Incident Management Team, the beetle is threatening public safety on 911 miles of trails, which is about 20 percent of all the trails in the Medicine Bow, Routt, White River, Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests; 3,467 miles of roads, or about 40 percent of all the roads in the forests; and 21,455 acres of developed recreation sites, which equates to 19 percent of all the campgrounds and picnic areas. Sights such as the trash bags taped over the entry sign for the Blacktail Creek Campground in Routt County are coarse reminders that use is limited or entirely banned in these areas while hazardous trees are removed. “The character of the sites will change when the large trees are gone,” Chambers wrote in an e-mail. “Structures and saplings can be added to provide shade and screening, but it will take time and money for this to happen.”

Finally letting go Not far from Huber’s British Columbia laboratory, Geof Magrath stands in the Prince George Golf and Curling Club’s pro shop, the gnarled ghosts of trees lining the fair-

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Sun shines through the pines at Lodgepole Campground in Gunnison National Forest.

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

The Lodgepole Campground’s mailbox.

ways behind him. Magrath, the associate pro, speaks distantly about the decimation of the golf course that has been his second home since he played his first round at age 8, 30 years ago. “Last year was when the rest of the trees went,” he said. “Now all them are dead. It’s just relentless. They’re everywhere.” Later, Magrath whizzes around the course on a golf cart, pointing out where thick stands used to define fairways, back greens and stop errant balls from flying toward the highway. “I still manage to get behind them sometimes,” jokes Magrath, pointing at the stumps of trees that used to punish golfers for going long on their approach shot. There aren’t as many stumps as you would expect, though; the course is one of the only places in the city that has not removed all its beetle-killed trees. “We’re so used to having a tree-lined golf course that mowing down all the trees was not attractive to the members,” Magrath said. “It’s just something you get used to. It looks really weird, but I don’t even notice anymore.”

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Lodgepole Campground host Steve Gilbreath gazes at the pines around the grounds.

“Really weird” is an understatement for a place that feels downright spooky, but it seems most golfers, like Magrath, have moved past it. It’s men’s night, and the course is packed. “It’s like home,” Magrath said. “I don’t want to leave. I like the golf course. It’s a great golf course.” Even so, the conifer corpses present a liability concern that can’t be ignored. There have been no accidents, but it’s not uncommon for winds to topple trees, or for golf balls to send dead branches flying. “If there’s enough of the canopy left, the wind will catch it and the top falls off — not that there’s a lot of canopy left,” Magrath said. The course will move to a new site north of the city in 2010. It has trees but very little pine. “That was a requirement,” Magrath said.

Born to die “We haven’t allowed the forest to die,” said Dave Steinke, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. “It’s sick, and something’s going to happen to it. And right now it’s bugs.” Officials with the federal and Colorado state forest services are the first to admit they haven’t done a good job in recent decades. A gung-ho approach toward the suppression of wildfires and policies that haven’t allowed fire to be mimicked through logging operations have allowed lodgepole forests to grow thick and old. Years of drought have stressed trees and robbed them of the moisture they need to produce the sap that is their natural defense against the boring insects. The resulting mature, stressed trees are like pizza to bark beetles, and forest management policies and nature have combined to put out a buffet. On an

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

John Norman of Prince George walks up the ninth hole fairway lined with dead pines.

afternoon earlier this summer — after 215 trees were removed from Howelsen Hill — George Hines, arborist for the city of Steamboat Springs, said he’s the busiest he’s been in 14 years on the job. Although mitigation is a major concern, there are plenty of people viewing the dead forest in economic terms. At the Rocky Mountain Pellet Co. in Walden, plant manager Bob Stahl is ready to convince anyone that his mill will be the most important player in getting the dead trees out of the forest. And in a remote area of the Roosevelt National Forest in north Larimer County, more than any of the trees he’s logging, woods boss Jerry Heggie would rather sell you on the ineptitude of the U.S. Forest Service. “It seems like common sense has gone out the window with them,” Heggie said. While Heggie is skeptical the Forest Service will throw open

Reporting: Brandon Gee; Photography: Matt Stensland and John F. Russell; Design and graphics: Nicole Miller; Editing: Brent Boyer, Mike Lawrence and Allison Miriani

its arms to commercial logging as a result of the mountain pine beetle epidemic, there do appear to be changes in store for the fighting of wildfires. Officials say they will let more fires burn. Their motivation is based not only on a desire to allow more natural forest regeneration, but also because dead standing trees, known as snags, are the second leading cause of death for wildland firefighters. “We’re not going to put firefighters in country with dead trees,” Steinke said. “No acre is worth a firefighter’s life — and no house.” Even for those like Steinke, who view the epidemic as Mother Nature finding a way to do what we wouldn’t let happen ourselves, there are moments of remorse. “My daughter — or my daughter’s daughters — will never see Routt County the way I knew it,” Steinke said. “I think that’s the hardest part for me.”


SUNDAY LIQUOR SALES BRING IN BUYERS | B USINESS 1B

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Hayden-trained -trained boxer heads to Beijing

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VOLUME 122, NUMBER 3 • STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, COLORADO • www.steamboatpilot.com

DNC event shifts

Fumbled forest Climate change, forest management fuel beetles’ shocking spread across Rockies

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Obama speech moves to Invesco, causes confusion

n remote corners of northern British Columbia, scientific instruments hang from 72-foot white towers above a dying forest, monitoring emissions of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Scientists are studying the impacts of the mountain pine beetle, which has killed 52 percent of British Columbia’s lodgepole pine trees. With its disregard of provincial and national borders and an insatiable appetite, the mountain pine beetle just might gnaw its way to the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., spreading what one expert said already is the “biggest insect infestation of historic times.”

Kevin Vaughan and Hector Gutierrez ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS

DENVER

THE LAST STAND A five-part series by the Steamboat Pilot & Today INSIDE

Part 1: A battle lost

This week: Fumbled forest

Part 3: Boon or bust?

Part 4: The red scare

Part 5: Rebirth

Sharon Stewart couldn’t believe her good fortune — two tickets to Sen. Barack Obama’s historic night in Denver for $15 apiece. She bought them on Ticketmaster for the “American Presidential Experience” at Invesco Field at Mile High and invited a friend to join her as Obama accepts the Obama Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. But it turns out her tickets weren’t for Obama’s presidential experience but for a traveling museum of White House memorabilia. And the tickets are no good anyway because the museum won’t be open to the general public Aug. 28, the day the Democratic National Convention moves to Invesco Field for Obama’s acceptance speech. “I’m just devastated,” said Stewart, who splits her time between Phoenix and Los Angeles. Add the American Presidential Experience to the list of things thrown into flux by Obama’s decision to move the last night of the convention from the Pepsi Center to Invesco Field, where as See Obama, page 14A

Crafts for charity

Reading the numbers Educators cite CSAP strengths, weaknesses

11-year-old sells jewelry at Farmers Market Blythe Terrell

PILOT & TODAY STAFF

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS

Cassie Wilhelm’s got style, and she wants to share it. The 11-year-old rocks a streak of blue dye in her blondish hair and has a soft spot for lime-green shoes. Cassie also has a social conscience: A couple of weeks ago, she started selling homemade jewelry at Steamboat Springs’ weekly Farmers Market for charity. Her profits will go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the American Heart Association. She sports her own beaded hemp creations, which she says she can whip up in about five minutes apiece. Cassie lets creativity be her guide. Rules? She’s got only one: “It kind of has to match. I wouldn’t put something on that didn’t match.” Cassie learned how to make the necklaces and bracelets at her birthday party PAGE DESIGNED BY NICOLE MILLER

in December. Before she started selling the accessories at the market, she and a co-entrepreneur tried to market their wares. “A friend of mine comes in every now and then from Tennessee for the summer,” she said. “We would go around our neighborhood with a wagon — door to door — and that didn’t work so well. We kept trying to find a better way to sell it.” She decided to go the charitable route. St. Jude’s was a favorite cause of Cassie’s grandmother, Patsy Wilhelm, who died nearly a year ago. Wilhelm often participated in Saddle Up for St. Jude. The horseback ride raises funds for the hospital, which is in Memphis, Tenn. Patsy Wilhelm “had a special place in her heart for St. Jude’s,” partly because it doesn’t turn children away if their See Cassie, page 14A

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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Cassie Wilhelm, 11, of Steamboat Springs, will sell her handmade jewelry Saturday at the Farmers Market on Sixth Street.

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VIEWPOINTS LAST WEEK: Do you think the mountain pine beetle epidemic will hurt tourism in Northwest Colorado? Results/5A

An afternoon thunderstorm. High of 85. Page 2A

NEWSPAPER

Test results released last week indicate that only 30 percent of sophomores across Colorado are proficient or advanced in math. So when 50 percent of Steamboat Springs High School sophomores scored in those top two categories, it’s mixed news — scores are above the state average, but half of the sophomores did not demonstrate math proficiency. According to Steamboat Springs School District officials, the reality is not that students aren’t proficient at math, but rather that the statewide Colorado Student Assessment Program tests do not always correspond with the math that is taught in Colorado schools. This year’s CSAP results are

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a bellwether for school districts across Colorado, as educators recognize students’ weaknesses and strengths in reading, writing, math and science. Educators say the tests are most important because they show growth from year to year, both for individual students and schools. By pulling apart the data, educators are able to learn more about their district’s strengths and weaknesses. But questions about CSAP’s alignment with school curriculums remain, including in Steamboat Springs. In 2008, Steamboat students again performed very well on the CSAP tests, with scores above state averages on every test. Steamboat Springs High School received an award from the Colorado Department of Education for a three-year trend See CSAP, page 14A

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THE LAST STAND The mountain pine beetle and the West’s dying forests A five-part series by the Steamboat Pilot & Today ❖ Part 2, Aug. 3, 2008

Beetle-killed pines — the remnants of a logging operation along the Yellowhead Highway in northern British Columbia — stand in front of the Caribou Mountains.

D

Fumbled forest

Driving up the interior of British Columbia is like watching the death march of a single tree hit by the mountain pine beetle. The dense forest is lush and green in the south. Trees slowly turn shades of orange and red farther north, on the fringes of the beetles’ current spread. It starts with a tree here. Another there. Then an entire stand. Before long, entire hillsides are afire. If you didn’t know what the ruby-tinged countryside signified,

Part 1: A battle lost

STORY BY BRANDON GEE PHOTOS BY MATT STENSLAND you might consider the vast and startling sight appealing, or even beautiful. But continue on, and there’s no mistaking the calamity. The redneedled trees eventually are replaced by their inevitable successors, and thorny, gray expanses conquer the landscape.

The social and emotional impacts of our changing forests.

Part 2: Fumbled forest

Mismanagement and nature combine to spawn an insect epidemic of unprecedented proportions.

Part 3: Boon or bust?

From biomass and logging to property values and tourism, dead timber presents economic challenges and opportunities.

Part 4: The red scare

What will happen when the red sea turns orange? A look at fire and other risks posed by millions of acres of dead and dying trees.

Part 5: Rebirth

Even as trees continue to fall prey to the bark beetle, a new forest is emerging from the scarred landscape.

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF


2F | STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 2 ❖ SUNDAY, AUG. 3, 2008

How the West was lost Climate change, forest management fuel beetles’ shocking spread across Rockies

I

n a laboratory at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, a moving plate jostles eight test tubes inside a mirrored glass box. Bacteria in the test tubes are being used to grow the mountain pine beetle genes responsible for producing the insect’s chemical defenses against lower temperatures. Dr. Dezene Huber and his students hope to better understand the simple yet resilient insect that has destroyed forests, economies and lifestyles across the province. “Our models tell us right now that the mountain pine beetle will kill approximately 76 percent of mature lodgepole pine by 2015,” Jim Snetsinger, British Columbia’s chief forester, said. “We believe the infestation has peaked but that it will continue to kill pine trees.” Following its destruction of tens of millions of lodgepole pine acres in Canada, the mountain pine beetle has nibbled its way south, killing forests throughout the Rocky

Mountain West, including Northwest Colorado. Experts in Canada and the U.S. are beginning to call the insect epidemic the worst on record. In January, the U.S. Forest Service announced Colorado’s total infestation had reached more than 1.5 million acres, nearly all of the state’s lodgepole pine trees. The magnitude of the epidemic has caught many off guard, as evidenced by comments made in a 2004 DVD by John Twitchell, a Steamboat Springs-based forester with the Colorado State Forest Service. “If we don’t treat the mountain pine beetle now, the potential for thousands of acres to be killed, brown hillsides, is very real,” Twitchell said at the time. “The mountain pine beetle may drive our management for a year or two.” Four years later, the affected acreage is in the millions, and a bearded Twitchell crisscrosses North Routt County in his state pickup. He’s reached a point where, even driving by at 60

mph, he can spot the small signs of a beetle attack on trees that haven’t even changed color. “This is like the phenomenon of the century,” said Twitchell, who believes Routt County will remain in peak conditions for another year or two. “I’m beginning to wonder if much is going to survive.”

Common culprit Despite the miles between Twitchell’s pickup and Snetsinger’s British Columbia office, the two men tell strikingly similar tales about the mountain pine beetle and their forests. Both stories begin with the sheer number of trees in the woods. Twitchell said although Colorado grows 1 billion board feet of timber each year, only 100 million board feet are harvested. There were 2.7 billion board feet of timber in Colorado at the beginning of last century. That number increased to 6 billion by the dawn of the mountain pine beetle epidemic, Twitchell said. Even in British Columbia,

where forestry was long the top industry and still is a close second to tourism, Snetsinger said the number of lodgepole pines increased from 1.3 billion board feet in the early 1900s to 508.5 billion board feet when the epidemic began. Ironically, efforts to save forests from one enemy may have only delayed their fall to another. In Colorado and British Columbia, a common contributor to the booming pine population is fire suppression. Technological advances such as aircraft and lightning detection gave the West the ability to fight wildfires like never before, and the westward migration of people made nervous by the sight of smoke on the horizon gave officials a reason to use that power. “We started to shift the age class in the forest,” a bespectacled and clean-cut Snetsinger said in his office. “It’s all a part of population dynamics.” See Environment, page 3F

Some would define this as a natural disaster. I would call it a phenomenon. It’s unprecedented. And it could be the result of global warming and mismanagement. To call it a natural occurrence is misleading, in my opinion.” — John Twitchell, Colorado State Forest Service


STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 2 ❖ SUNDAY, AUG. 3, 2008

| 3F

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

John Twitchell, a Steamboat Springs-based forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, stands near a burn pile in the Red Creek subdivision in North Routt County.

Environment continued from 2F

The environmental logger

North Routt Hahn’s Peak ■ Clark ■

Hayden

I-25 Fort Collins ■

Loveland ■ U.S. 34

Colorado

Winter Park ■ Rifle

0 I-7

Montrose ■

■ Crested

U.S. 50

■ Castle

U.S. 160 ■ Highways, roads

U.S. 160 ■ Pagosa

Springs

New Mexico

Springs

U. S. 40

0 U.S. 4

Pueblo

■ Lamar

U.S. 50

U.S. 285

U.S. 55 0

State, county lines

Colo. 134

U.S. 34

Rock

Cañon City ■

Total area affected by pine beetles

Ft. Morgan

I-70

U.S. 50

Toponas ■

U.S. 36

■ Colorado ■ Salida

Routt

. 24 U.S

U.S. 24

Butte

■ Gunnison

U.S. 34

■ Aspen

Key

AZ

5 28 S. . U

■ Leadville

6 I-7

Greeley

Phippsburg

South ■ Sterling Yampa ■

■ Denver

Silverthorne

I-25 ■ Alamosa

U.S. 2 85

➤ N

Junction

Springs

U.S. 385

Utah

■ Grand

■ Glenwood

■ Vail ■

U.S. 385

Oak Creek Nebraska

■ Trinidad

Kansas

Craig

. 40 U.S

131 Colo.

U.S. 385

U.S. 40

U.S. 40

1 inch = 19 miles Steamboat Springs

1 inch = 65 miles

Routt County

Wyoming

Steamboat ■ Springs

Milner

C.R. 14

U.S. 287

See Environment, page 4F

Acres impacted by mountain pine beetles County 2006 2007 Change Routt 79,456 134,080 +54,624 Jackson 149,512 252,170 +102,658 Grand 287,982 273,979 -14,003 Summit 39,070 50,974 +11,904 Eagle 60,381 48,500 -11,881 Larimer 3,152 121,104 +117,952 Boulder 1,600 26,200 +24,600 Gilpin 1,936 16,250 +14,314 Clear Creek 7,904 29,493 +21,589 Park 15 2,850 +2,835 Lake 1,903 3,535 +1,632 Pitkin 2,294 1,209 -1,085 Chaffee 2,291 2,123 -168 Source: U.S. Forest Service aerial surveys

7 U.S. 28

Several hours southeast of Prince George, in the high-desert city of Kamloops, it’s easy to believe in global warming. It’s June 30, the eve of Canada Day, and it’s 100 degrees in a city about 1,000 miles northwest of Steamboat. Crooked pines dot the hillsides around the town.

By the numbers

29 .1 C.R

Looking backward

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Roy Mask, a Gunnison-based entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said higher temperatures could spell trouble for the Gunnison National Forest, where frigid winters always have kept the mountain pine beetle in check.

U.S. 85

Columbia has increased about 4 to 5 degrees in that time. “It certainly appears our warming climate is conducive to increased survivability of the mountain pine beetle,” Snetsinger said. “It’s just science. It is what it is.” Roy Mask, a Gunnison-based entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said higher temperatures could spell trouble for the Gunnison National Forest, where mountain pine beetle outbreaks always have been tempered by some of the coldest winters in the nation. Mask isn’t encouraged by the fact that just over the Continental Divide in Lake County, the mountain pine beetle is flourishing. “It could just be a matter of time,” Mask said, “but we’re trying to better understand why we’re holding up better. It’s a little bit perplexing to us why we’re seeing so much activity in Lake County at similar elevations.” The potential role of global warming is made even more troubling in light of research conducted by Werner Kurz of the Canadian Forest Service. In an article published in the journal Nature, Kurz reported that, by 2020, British Columbia’s forests will convert from “carbon sinks” to “carbon sources,” meaning they will intensify the warming trends that may have contributed to their death in the first place.

40 S. U.

In the cab of his truck, Twitchell scans the blemished North Routt landscape through sunglasses and talks freely about the lack of logging in America, a

net importer of lumber. He gets squeamish, however, when asked about global warming’s potential contribution to the beetle epidemic. “Obviously — at least our short-term records indicate — our winters have been warmer,” Twitchell said carefully. “Phenomena like this are probably a direct result of it. … Everyone agrees with that whether you agree with global warming or not.” A few moments pass before Twitchell can no longer resist the urge to answer the question in less couched terms. “Most scientists see a warming in the environment,” he continued. “I think global warming is pretty acknowledged or accepted. In my opinion, we’re having an impact on the environment. “Some would define this as a natural disaster. I would call it a phenomenon. It’s unprecedented. And it could be the result of global warming and mismanagement. To call it a natural occurrence is misleading, in my opinion.” Because the mountain pine beetle prefers old, weak trees, Snetsinger said pine forests stressed by age and competition were sitting ducks for a catastrophic outbreak of the insect that always has been endemic throughout the mountains of western North America. All that was missing, Snetsinger said, were the right climatic conditions. Enter warmth and drought. Snetsinger and other Canadian officials readily point a finger at global warming, perhaps because they have disproportionately felt its effects. Snetsinger said that while the mean global temperature has increased about 1 degree during the past 100 years, the mean temperature in northern British

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

4 .2 U.S

Unnatural occurrence

Twitchell holds a container with a beetle.

50 S. U.

Twitchell described lodgepole pine as a “fire-dependent species … designed to burn in catastrophic, stand-replacing fires.” For Twitchell, commercial logging goes hand in hand with good forestry and good environmental policy — especially if fires aren’t allowed to burn. “These openings that we create in the forest are the best way to mimic what a fire does as it creates an open space without any competition,” Twitchell continued, “and that’s what lodgepole pine needs.” For others, the idea of loggers mowing down forests doesn’t mesh with the idea of protecting the environment. For a variety of reasons, mostly public sentiment, Twitchell said people like him have lost this battle during the past 35 years. “That was in response to some real abuses,” Twitchell said, “but we swung the pendulum too far the other way. So we’ve lost 35 years of regeneration. ... Thirtyfive years of better management would have lessened the impact of all of this.” U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dave Steinke said officials have previously operated under the “10 o’clock policy,” referring to public pressure from landowners to have all wildfires extinguished by 10 p.m. “We have a mission: Put out all the fires,” Steinke said. “As a result, we have a very unhealthy forest right now.” Officials now are toying with a new approach known as “appropriate management response.” Officials will be less suppression driven and more resource management driven in determining whether and how to fight a wildfire. On the commercial harvesting side, Mary Ann Chambers said the U.S. Forest Service is not increasing its allowable cut but is trying to get closer to it by putting up more timber sales and eliminating some of the red tape loggers face. “We’re excited that we do have some industry that can help us out with that stuff,” said Chambers, spokeswoman for U.S. Forest Service’s Mountain Pine Beetle Incident Management Team.

U.S. 160

Oklahoma SOURCE: U.S. FOREST SERVICE. GRAPHIC: NICOLE MILLER/STAFF


STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 2 ❖ SUNDAY, AUG. 3, 2008

A continental concern? Back at the University of Northern British Columbia, Huber is less optimistic. “The biggest concern is climate, and will the colder winters hold them at bay,” he said. “There’s some hope just the climate will shut it down, but with climate change …” In black board shorts and a gray Badlands T-shirt, Huber looks more like a student than a scientist in the school’s Ecosystem Science and Management Program. But the casual dress belies a man whose research has serious implications. “One of the biggest worries right now is that the pine beetle is going to escape lodgepole pine,” Huber said. Huber and his students are studying the defenses different types of pines have against the beetle and, specifically, how the lodgepole pines of British Columbia compare to the jack pines of Alberta. MATT STENSLAND/STAFF “We know from experiments Jim Snetsinger, British Columbia’s chief forester, says 52 percent of the province’s lodgepole pines are dead. that it can do good in jack pines,” tles release an anti-aggregation Huber said. “We have seen things to show us jack pine is less pheromone, or what Huber calls a “no vacancy” sign. adapted to pine beetle, which is “The only reason they aggreto be expected.” gate is to kill the tree,” Huber Huber said he would be said. “highly, highly surprised” if the mountain pine beetle sweeps But with their numbers in the across the country to the eastern hundreds of billions, mountain seaboard, infiltrating the U.S. pine beetles are ignoring their through heavily pined areas such own signals and piling into trees as the Great Lakes and Midregardless. Atlantic regions. On the other Beetles also are lowering hand, Huber doesn’t hesitate to their typically high standards call this the “biggest insect infesfor large, mature trees. Twitchell tation of historic times of any said beetles in Grand County insect,” and, as such, he expects have attacked trees as small as some surprises. 3 inches in diameter; nearly all Huber said, “There’s a reason- the literature on the insects says able chance. If there wasn’t a they won’t attack trees smaller reasonable chance, I wouldn’t be than 6 to 8 inches in diameter. looking at it and neither would a Twitchell also said mountain lot of other people.” pine beetles have been found to attack not only other types of Evolutionary experiment pine trees, but also spruce and fir trees. While trolling the woods of “More recently, we’ve watched the Willow Creek Pass subdivipine beetles piling into spruce sion in North Routt County, MATT STENSLAND/STAFF trees,” Huber said. “Not many Twitchell clips his sunglasses to Beetle-killed lodgepole have been heavily logged from areas around Kamloops, British Columbia. the neck of his gray forest service survive, but if they do, they do well, and the next generation prepolo and takes up a hatchet. He comes across what has become a fers spruce.” Huber said only 10 to 20 perrare site: an unsuccessful beetle. cent of mountain pine beetles “She’s lost the battle,” survive in spruce trees, and he Unique storm carries beetles to new locales Twitchell says upon finding a would be “very highly surprised beetle caught in a glob of sticky Beetles can fly up to 6 A freak wind event in British Columbia, if they took off in spruce.” If it sap on the side of a lodgepole miles when searching Canada, blew the beetles 50 to 60 miles over were to happen, it would be an pine. for a new host tree. the Rocky Mountains into Alberta, Canada. event of evolutionary proporTwitchell said lodgepoles tions, Huber said. typically are quite successful at 50 miles “These things are older than 6 miles 60 miles spitting beetles out with sap, but the dinosaurs,” Huber said. in an epidemic of these proportions, the trees are overwhelmed. “Chances are they’ve had thouAlberta sands if not millions of chances Even on this tree, beetles that British Columbia for this to happen, with limited succeeded vastly outnumber successes. the one that failed. Most of the Standing in a knee-deep slash boreholes in the tree have sap pile in north Larimer County, on them, but instead of a dead logger Jerry Heggie picks a beetle caught inside, the globs mountain pine beetle off the are covered in frass, a fine sawback of his neck. His comment is dust that signals the beetle sucliteral and unscientific but sums cessfully worked its way inside up the larger issue at hand. the tree. “I think the bugs are getting Beetles gang up on a tree bigger,” said Heggie, examining by releasing a pheromone that the beetle squirming on its back attracts other beetles to the tree. Rocky Mountains Once the tree succumbs, the bee- in his palm. “I really do.”

Winds of change

GRAPHIC: NICOLE MILLER/STAFF

Yukon Territory

Epidemic elicits little wildlife fright

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97

Alaska ➤

37

Northwest Territories

77

British Columbia

97

Dawson Creek Mackenzie

97

16

Pacific Ocean

16

Prince Rupert

Prince George 16

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

A robin sits on a dead lodgepole pine branch near Dumont Lake on Rabbit Ears Pass.

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Highways, roads

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1 inch = 171 miles

Reporting: Brandon Gee; Photography: Matt Stensland; Design and graphics: Nicole Miller; Editing: Brent Boyer, Mike Lawrence and Allison Miriani

1 ■

Total area affected by pine beetles

Kamloops 97 ■

fer from a major reduction in cones. Animals such as snowshoe hares will benefit from the food provided by the young lodgepole pine trees that will replace the trees being killed now, Twitchell said. And what’s good for snowshoe hare will, in turn, benefit their predators, such as lynx.

■ The cumulative area of British Columbia affected is estimated at 33.3 million acres, about four times the size of Vancouver Island. ■ British Columbia is thought to have three times more mature lodgepole pine than it did 90 years ago, mainly because equipment and techniques for protecting forests against wildfire have greatly improved. ■ 52 percent of lodgepole pines have been killed in British Columbia. ■ 76 percent are expected to be dead by 2015.

a challenge, but from a wildlife population perspective, it’s not catastrophic.” John Twitchell, a Steamboat Springs-based forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, said cavity-nesting birds no doubt will benefit from the abundance of dead trees the beetle will leave in its wake. Squirrels, however, may suf-

Alberta

By the numbers

andy Hampton doesn’t mean to downplay the seriousness of Colorado’s mountain pine beetle epidemic — especially considering the serious fire and erosion concerns it presents — but he says “it hasn’t risen to the crisis level for wildlife.” “It’s kind of a mixed bag,” said Hampton, a spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. “Animals aren’t going to fall over dead. … Really what we are looking at is a lot of secondary impacts.” Hampton said a number of people are researching what effect the epidemic might have on the state’s wildlife population, but for the time being, he expects animals to simply move somewhere else if they need to. “Lodgepole pine is not required for the functioning of the ecosystem,” Hampton said. “It changes the ecosystem some but not always in a way that hurts wildlife. … It’s

In addition to possibly contributing to the mountain pine beetle epidemic, Snetsinger said climate change also frustrated British Columbia’s response to it. According to the province’s Ministry of Forestry and Ranges, it takes several consecutive days of temperatures of about minus 30 or minus 40 degrees to kill a substantial amount of a mountain pine beetle population. In the early fall or late spring, sustained temperatures of about minus 15 degrees can do the trick. Snetsinger said such conditions used to occur like clockwork once a decade. The last time it happened was 1985. “We just haven’t seen that stuff for a long, long time,” Snetsinger said. “What we were trying to do was control it until a cold-weather event. We were looking backward. It had always come before.” Based on his experience with previous mountain pine beetle outbreaks, Twitchell is shocked about what the mountain pine beetle has accomplished this time around. “We started with a ‘We can beat this thing’ attitude,” Twitchell said. “Our past history had said that we can stop this.” Efforts across Colorado have proved as futile as those in British Columbia. On the slopes of Mount Werner, Doug Allen said the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. aggressively fought the beetle for about six years. They used the same cutting and debarking techniques that successfully mitigated an earlier outbreak of the spruce bark beetle. Allen, Ski Corp.’s vice president of mountain operations, estimated the cost of those efforts at $60,000 a year. “It’s disturbing, after all that effort, we lost the battle,” Allen said. “It was a lost game from the beginning. They got so ahead of steam that there was no way to head it off.” In a fourth-floor office in downtown Kamloops, Dave Cornwell has one job: control the beetle’s spread in Alberta so that it doesn’t sweep across Canada’s boreal forest. “The federal priority is that they don’t want the beetle to go across the country, of course,” said Cornwell, assistant provincial bark beetle coordinator for British Columbia’s Emergency Mountain Pine Beetle Response. “It’s been a British Columbia problem up until now.” But the mountain pine beetle doesn’t respect borders. When mountain pine beetles emerge from dead, infested trees in the summer to fly to new host trees, they typically travel up to six miles. But, with the right wind conditions, they can go more than 50 to 60 miles. A freak wind event in 2006 carried British Columbia beetles straight over the Rocky Mountains into Alberta. Despite the lessons British Columbia learned about “looking backward,” Snetsinger and Cornwell confirmed that they are using the same techniques in Alberta: slowing the spread and waiting for severe cold spells.

“In B.C., it’s had really ideal conditions, but in Alberta and Saskatchewan, you have much different climate conditions,” Cornwell said. “It’s not real hospitable to beetles.”

Environment continued from 3F

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Vancouver

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95 6

Kelowna

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Washington

3 3

Montana ID

SOURCE: BRITISH COLUMBIA MINISTRY OF FORESTS AND RANGE GRAPHIC: NICOLE MILLER/STAFF


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Boon or bust?

THE LAST STAND A five-part series by the Steamboat Pilot & Today INSIDE

Beetle epidemic changing economies

T

he mountain pine beetle epidemic presents a mixed bag of economic impacts. In the woods of northern Larimer County, third-generation logger Jerry Heggie laments the latest blow to the timber industry. Meanwhile, two pellet mills in Kremmling and Walden are sprouting on political encouragement and the promise of a decade-long supply of dead and otherwise unwanted trees.

Part 1: A battle lost

This week: Boon or bust?

Part 2: Fumbled forest

At the YMCA of the Rockies’ Snow Mountain Ranch in Grand County, a discouraging spread of dead or clear-cut forest quickly is overshadowed by previously hidden and breathtaking views of the Indian Peaks, epitomizing the pros and cons facing property owners. “You’ve lost the trees,” said Max Pitzer, a volunteer at the ranch, “but you’ve gained the mountains.”

Part 4: The red scare

Part 5: Rebirth

Dampened soles, not spirits Laws reflects on Relay For Life participants endure wet weather at overnight event Melinda Dudley

Integrated Community sees growth

PILOT & TODAY STAFF

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS

Seemingly every walker at Relay For Life on Friday and Saturday had a very personal story. They were walking in honor of someone currently battling cancer, in memory of someone they had lost or in support of friends and family whose lives have been touched by the disease. “I’m walking for my Grandpa Vern, because he died two years ago from cancer,” said Emily Puffett, 12. Late Friday night, Puffett barely had left the track at Steamboat Springs High School since her arrival at Relay For Life, despite the fact that her designated shift still was hours away. Walkers circled the crowded track Friday evening as thunder and lightning opened up the skies overhead. Although plastic lightsabers and glow necklaces were the choice accessories of team members taking the nighttime shifts, walkers early in the relay circled the track donning brightly colored ponchos and raingear, See Relay, page 12A PAGE DESIGNED BY NICOLE MILLER

changing valley Blythe Terrell

PILOT & TODAY STAFF

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Cancer survivors, from left, Sandy Jenny, Jason Sear, Bev Engel and Keith Leifer participate Friday in the Survivor Walk during the American Cancer Society Relay For Life at the Steamboat Springs High School.

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VIEWPOINTS LAST WEEK: Is it a good idea to turn the Space Station gas site, at Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue, into a park? Results/5A THIS WEEK: Should the city pass a social host ordinance, which would toughen penalties for parents who allow underage drinking in their homes?

An afternoon and evening thunderstorm. High of 76. Page 2A

NEWSPAPER

In her four years at the helm of Integrated Community, Summer Laws has seen shifting trends firsthand. Some are obvious: The number of immigrants to the Yampa Valley is increasing, and Craig has a steadier population than the costlier Steamboat Springs. Other trends are less predictable. “It seems like people are moving back and forth between Craig and Steamboat,” Laws said. “They’ll move to Craig to be closer to family, and then they’ll move to Steamboat to be closer to work. Then it will be too expensive, and they’ll move back to Craig.” Laws founded Integrated Community, or Comunidad Integrada, with Cody Reed and others in 2004. She has worked tirelessly since then to build unity and help immigrants

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assimilate. The organization offers programs such as English lessons and a hot line to answer cultural questions. It has offices in Steamboat Springs and Craig. Laws will step away from the executive director position Aug. 22. She’s heading to Colorado State University in Fort Collins to take prerequisite courses to go to graduate school in nutrition. She plans to start a career in public health. Although Laws said she would miss the people she’s worked with, she said it was time for a change. The organization has been building infrastructure and programming and is in a stable place, she said. “It seemed like I was ready and the organization was ready,” Laws said. The group reaches more than 1,000 people a year, she estimated. That population includes a variety of people with a variSee Immigration, page 12A

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THE LAST STAND The mountain pine beetle and the West’s dying forests A five-part series by the Steamboat Pilot & Today ❖ Part 3, Aug. 10, 2008

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Steve Yanoski, with Timber Works in Steamboat Springs, assembles a structure made of lodgepole pine at a picnic area in the West End Village subdivision.

Boon or bust?

I

Some lament, others capitalize on beetle epidemic

In the backwoods of the Roosevelt National Forest in northern Larimer County, woods boss Jerry Heggie has barely introduced himself before he starts hauling the U.S. Forest Service over the coals. “It’s a challenge to do any logging anywhere, especially with the Forest Service,” said Heggie, of Laramie, Wyo.-based Heggie Logging. “Nine out of 10 forests don’t even have a timber program.” Heggie’s frustrations are deep-rooted, but the past few years have been especially maddening for the third-generation logger. In response to what Heggie considers a bungled response to the mountain pine beetle epidemic, what may once have been irritation is now full-blown contempt. In January, the U.S. Forest Service announced that bark beetles’ total infestation reached more than 1.5 million acres in Colorado, nearly all of

STORY BY BRANDON GEE PHOTOS BY MATT STENSLAND the state’s lodgepole forests. “It’s all over,” Heggie said. “It really is. It’s horrible. And the Forest Service isn’t doing anything about it.” His teeth are stained by Copenhagen chewing tobacco. In a white hard hat, brown boots, jeans and a filthy “Loggers Lagers” T-shirt, Heggie trudges uphill through chest-high slash piles. He throws out his criticisms recklessly, with no fear of retaliation in the form of losing any work in the national forest. See Economics, page 2F

Part 1: A battle lost

The social and emotional impacts of our changing forests.

Part 2: Fumbled forest

Mismanagement and nature combine to spawn an insect epidemic of unprecedented proportions.

Part 3: Boon or bust?

From biomass and logging to property values and tourism, dead timber presents economic challenges and opportunities.

Part 4: The red scare

What will happen when the red sea turns orange? A look at fire and other risks posed by millions of acres of dead and dying trees.

Part 5: Rebirth

Even as trees continue to fall prey to the bark beetle, a new forest is emerging from the scarred landscape.


2F | STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 3 ❖ SUNDAY, AUG. 10, 2008

Joe Redfern, of J Bonn Wood Products, cuts a log into pieces of lumber at the Steamboat Springs sawmill. The lumber will be used in the construction of homes in the Steamboat area.

JOHN F. RUSSELL/STAFF

Economics continued from 1F “We’d have to do something illegal or timber theft,” Heggie said. “Or threaten them, I guess. It’s come close to that once or twice. You’d like to threaten them, but you don’t.” At the top of the hill, Heggie’s 20-year-old nephew, Beau, is in the cab of a harvester with controls that look every bit as complicated as those of a fighter jet. In a dance involving his feet and hands, Beau Heggie effortlessly controls the long-armed machine, dropping lodgepole pines, stripping them of their branches and setting them aside. Heggie notes the size of the trees being dropped. Although the mountain pine beetle prefers large trees, Heggie is allowed to take trees only about 6 inches in diameter that could, maybe, survive the epidemic. Meanwhile, he is forced to leave behind the larger trees he would prefer and that are surely doomed. Heggie employee Frank “Red” Peters motions toward a tree with a bore hole oozing sap, a tell-tale sign it has been hit by the mountain pine beetle. A band of orange spray paint rings the tree, telling the loggers not to touch it. “I tell you what, we’ve wasted so much timber around here it ain’t even funny,” Peters said. “These are the ones that should have been taken. Really, what good did we do?” Heggie can at least take solace in the fact that he is working. The future holds less certainty. Where there were once five major Colorado and Wyoming sawmills within 100 miles of one another, there is now only one — and the mountain pine beetle threatens even that. Asked what the hardest part of the business is, Heggie says it’s “keeping the wood out in front of them.” “Right now, it’s looking pretty bleak for the next five years,” Heggie said. “We like to look into the future and know what we’re all going to be doing. Right now, it’s hard to say what we’re going to be doing.”

Out of their hands Logging operations fell off dramatically in the 1990s, leading to the mill closures Heggie referenced, but Andy Cadenhead says this was not the Forest Service’s doing. “At that time, the public intolerance for the amount of logging heightened,” said Cadenhead, a Steamboat Springs-based supervisory forester with the U.S. Forest Service. “That really

JOHN F. RUSSELL/STAFF

Lumber produced from trees killed by beetles is stacked in a pile at J Bonn Wood Products in Steamboat Springs. It will be used in home construction. Bonn is one of several local businessmen hoping to find a silver lining in the beetle epidemic in Colorado.

knocked us back in the form of appeals and litigation.” The Forest Service is now desperately trying to revamp the industry in an effort to clear forests of the risks that accompany millions of acres of dead and dying trees. Cadenhead said fuel costs are a major detriment because the large mills closest to Steamboat are in Laramie and Montrose. Besides, there is a finite amount of time before the dead trees begin to crack and lose their lumber value. “I don’t know who would ever gamble on such a thing right now,” Heggie said. Cadenhead agrees. “Our timber sale program will probably drop back down,” Cadenhead said. “We expect that we’ll still have timber to sell, but certainly not as much as we’re seeing today.” Even the industry that does exist isn’t necessarily interested in what the Forest Service is offering. The mill Heggie works for, Big Horn Lumber in Laramie, doesn’t want dead trees. When beetles attack a tree, they infect it with a fungus that causes the wood to turn partially blue. While the fungus affects only the wood’s appearance and not its quality, Heggie said the perception of inferiority means Big Horn can’t make a profit off it. “Everything’s in green demand,” said Heggie, who must limit the amount of blue-stain he delivers to the mill. “It’s not that Big Horn won’t take blue-stain, but they can only survive on about 10 percent.”

Local success While operations the size of Heggie’s and Big Horn struggle to make use of blue-stain lumber, Cadenhead said some smaller

Beetle legislation 2008 state bills soften beetle’s blow to pocketbook ■ H.B. 1110 For income tax years 2009 to 2014, establishes a state income tax deduction for 50 percent of a landowner’s direct costs in performing wildfire mitigation measures on his or her property. ■ H.B. 1269 For fiscal year 2008-09 to fiscal year 2012-13, provides a sales and use tax exemption for sales, storage and use of wood products such as lumber, furniture and wood chips that use wood from salvaged trees killed by or infested with mountain pine beetles. ■ H.B. 1318 Creates the Beetle Mitigation Fund to be administered by the Colorado State Forest Service and to mitigate beetle infestation on state-owned land. ■ S.B. 71 Extends the Forest Restoration Pilot Program, which solicits proposals for experimental forest restoration projects that protect water supplies. ■ S.B. 221 Authorizes the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority to issue up to $50 million in bonds for the purposes of funding watershed protection and forest health projects. Source: Northwest Colorado Forest Health Guide, 2008

operations make it work. “It’s really pretty,” Nick Casias, an employee of J Bonn Wood Products in Steamboat, said as he ran his hands over the marbled look of a piece of dimensional lumber. “There’s a lot of it, and I don’t know why more people aren’t taking advantage of it.” Owner Joe Bonn said perceptions that blue-stain is inferior are false. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the wood itself,” Bonn said. “Anything you can make out of wood, you can use this wood for. It’s just getting the word out.” See Economics, page 3F

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Beau Heggie, with Heggie Logging, replaces a chain on the harvester at a Roosevelt National Forest logging site.

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Jerry Heggie, left, and Frank “Red” Peters, with Wyo.-based Heggie Logging, talk about the logging industry at a logging site in the Roosevelt National Forest.


STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 3 ❖ SUNDAY, AUG. 10, 2008

| 3F

JOHN F. RUSSELL/STAFF

John Redmond demonstrates one of the wood-pellet boilers he sells for the Danish Company TARM USA.The pellets can be made from the scrap material created by many area sawmills processing trees killed by beetles.

Economics continued from 2F “I’ve always tried to stay in harvesting dead timber stands because it’s more environmentally friendly and these trees need to come out,” Bonn continued. “Now there’s just way more timber than probably is usable, unfortunately. An operation this size, there’s no way. I won’t even put a dent in it.” The same is true at More Lumber in Milner. “The local demand I don’t think will keep up with beetlekill,” Mike Miller said. “A lot of this wood goes to New Mexico, Utah, California, South Dakota. I don’t think we’ll ever get them all out. No one will.” Miller and his business partner, Billy Oerding, have made a career out of following the beetle. For nine years, Miller did most of his logging in Grand County, where the mountain pine beetle epidemic took off in Colorado after annihilating forests in British Columbia and other parts of the Rocky Mountain West. “We were out there doing some dirt work, excavation,” Miller said. “People started asking us to take out trees. It just kind of ballooned.” Oerding sold his company in California and moved to Colorado to capitalize on the bark beetle epidemic after coming out to look at a beetle problem on a friend’s ranch. “I’d been doing the same thing in California,” Oerding said. “It’s good lumber. It’s got a place. We’re not out here to rape and pillage. We want to do a good job. We want to be responsible.” Oerding said the beetle epidemic presents a decade-long window of opportunity for More Lumber. But while they are sur-

rounded by a ready-made supply for their mill, the surplus has put downward pressure on the price of lumber. The industry also hasn’t been immune to the effects of skyrocketing fuel prices and a plummeting housing market nationwide. The market price of 110,000 board feet of lumber on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange has fallen from about $290 when Miller and Oerding started their joint venture together in November 2007 to about $250 today.

Inescapable “It gets so cold up here that the lawyers have their hands in their own pockets,” Colin Rolston jokes to visitors July 1, Canada Day. In observance, Rolston displayed the Canadian flag at his recently sold bed and breakfast in Williams Lake, British Columbia, but had little other plans for the holiday. From his hillside balcony, Rolston points across the lake at patches of clear-cut forest. People were so upset with the man who logged the treasured mountainside above the lake, Rolston said, that no mill dared purchase his lumber. Rolston doesn’t think there should be the same hesitancy to use any of the province’s tens of millions of acres decimated by the mountain pine beetle. “I think the real sad part is the bureaucracy in putting the wood to use,” Rolston said. “It’s going to die anyway, right? Let’s do something with it. They’re going to die anyway. Use your head.” But it’s not that simple. Jim Snetsinger, British Columbia’s chief forester, said the province is trying desperately

to harvest as much beetle-killed timber as possible while it still has value. Snetsinger is responsible for setting the province’s annual allowable cut, and he has been increasing it. “What actually gets harvested is driven by the market, not by the chief forester,” Snetsinger said. At the Prince George Railway and Forestry Museum in British Columbia, the donations box is fittingly made out of blue-stain wood. “An epidemic like this has never happened in the last 100 years, which is the history of industry in Prince George,” said museum curator James TirrulJones, who said the downturn of the U.S. housing market is hurting Canada’s industry, as well. “It’s occurred at a time when other economic factors just make it worse.”

Boon The situation is quite the opposite for the woody biomass industry. While lumber mills have been on the decline, within 50 miles of each other, pellet mills in Kremmling and Walden have sprouted on political encouragement and the promise of a boundless supply of dead and otherwise unwanted trees. “As long as I’ve been talking about this (mountain pine beetle epidemic), I’ve thought there is a bigger role for woody biomass to play,” Gov. Bill Ritter said in May at Soroco High School in Oak Creek, where students will be the first in Colorado warmed by biomass boilers fueled with wood pellets. “We know there are some cost impediments, but this is certainly something we need to think about in scale.” See Economics, page 4F

Wood pellet biomass

Trees

Lumber

Sawdust

Wood pellets

Beetle-killed lodgepole pine trees are harvested

Trees are processed at a sawmill

Wood scraps are compressed into pellets

Pellets can be used in wood-burning boilers

FAQs

Natural carbon cycle

Q. What is biomass? A. Biomass is the burning of biological products, such as wood, to produce heat.

➙ Burning wood releases carbon

Q. Are wood pellets economically viable? A. The U.S. Forest Service estimates 1.5 million acres of pine trees in Colorado will require treatment at an estimated cost of $15 million a year for the next 40 years. Producing biomass with waste wood products can help restore forest health while reducing cost of land treatment by as much as 40 percent.

Saplings absorb carbon

Q. Are wood pellets an environmentally friendly energy source? A. Biomass is generally considered a carbon-neutral energy source, meaning it releases no net carbon. This is because burning wood pellets releases the same amount of CO2 into the atmosphere as was absorbed as the tree grew. However, it takes some energy to harvest, produce and transport the wood products, resulting in minimal CO2 released.

Mature trees store carbon

The natural carbon cycle between vegetation and the atmosphere does not add new carbon throughout time. Even when burning biomass produces atmospheric carbon, it is then absorbed by growing plant life. SOURCES: COLORADO STATE FOREST SERVICE, HARVARD GREEN CAMPUS INITIATIVE. GRAPHIC: NICOLE MILLER/STAFF

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Rocky Mountain Pellet Co. plant manager Bob Stahl explains how the pellet plant will work once it is operational.

Wood-fired boilers gaining steam Electricity presents bigger hurdles than heat

O

ak Creek and Milner are on the cutting edge of a new energy frontier. The two small Routt County communities have characteristics, including their size, that make them better suited to take advantage of the state’s mountain pine beetle epidemic in ways that may not make sense for larger communities. Earlier this summer, Community Energy Systems President Brett Ken Cairn announced that he is in talks with the Milner Landfill and the adjacent More Lumber sawmill about the feasibility of building an “eco-industrial park” on the site. The envisioned Milner Energy Park would take waste from one operation and use it as a resource for another. Wood waste from the mill would be combined with municipal waste from the landfill to fuel a biomass power plant at the hub of the park. The primary waste product of the power plant — heat — would be used to heat a dry kiln building proprietors Billy Oerding and Mike Miller hope to construct at the More Lumber sawmill, which works exclusively with beetle-kill wood harvested on private land. “It’s moving toward total utilization of materials,” said Ken Cairn, who also is performing a feasibility study of a biomass electricity facility in Walden for Mountain Parks Electric. Ken Cairn put the cost of a quarter-megawatt facility at $1 million and said it could be built in two years. Xcel Energy’s coal-powered Hayden Station produces 446 megawatts of electricity.

JOHN F. RUSSELL/STAFF

Scrap materials created by many area sawmills can be used to produce wood pellets to fire wood-burning boilers.

Ken Cairn expects rural electric co-ops such as Yampa Valley Electric Association to be supportive of such facilities because of state-mandated benchmarks for the percentage of their electricity that must come from renewable sources. Ken Cairn said total-utilization facilities are the only way to turn wood into electricity with any amount of economic viability. “It’s the least valuable thing you could do with wood,” Ken Cairn said of electricity generation. “We need to find ways to reduce the cost of the feed stock and improve the efficiency of the utilization. I would assert that you can’t go out and harvest trees for energy alone. … I don’t think it’s sustainable.” Ken Cairn said the most appropriate use for wood is heat. In Oak Creek, residents are taking a serious look at becoming the first biomassfueled municipality in the nation. Mark Mathis, of Kremmling wood-pellet mill Confluence Energy, said the economics work because of Oak Creek’s size, its lack of paved streets that would need to be torn out to install water lines, a plethora of cheap fuel provided by the mountain pine beetle epidemic to heat

those lines, and the fact that the town relies on expensive propane for heat. “It’s eating their lunch,” Mathis said of propane. “Why not use a perfectly good resource at your feet?” Wood-fired heating systems have proved successful on smaller scales. The South Routt School District and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden will soon put such systems to the test, and officials with Boulder County Parks and Open Space swear by their system. Boulder County uses wood waste from its thinning operations to heat a five-building complex. In a worst-case scenario, the system should pay for itself in 20 years; with current natural gas prices, it will do so in seven, Boulder County officials said. At NREL, mechanical engineer Chris Gaul said a “renewable fuel heat plant” will warm a 400,000-squarefoot laboratory and cut natural gas use by 80 percent. Gaul said wood fuel is $2.50 per million BTUs, while natural gas currently costs $11 per million BTUs. The project estimates for the heat plant assumed natural gas would cost just $8 per million BTUs.


4F |

STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 3 ❖ SUNDAY, AUG. 10, 2008

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

The mountain pine beetle has devastated parts of the Steamboat Ski Area.

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Storm Peak

◆◆ Christmas

While the mountain pine beetle has had top-to-bottom impacts on British Columbia’s forestry industry, few expect the same impacts on what has replaced it as the province’s No. 1 industry: tourism. Tourists packed the visitors center in Kamloops, British Columbia, on the eve of Canada Day, and cyclists filled Tranquille-Criss Creek Road the next morning. “Tourism is growing because (British Columbia) is sort of the last frontier,” Rolston said. Sandy Evans Hall, executive vice president of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, feels similarly about Northwest Colorado. “So far, I haven’t seen any impact from the trees,” Evans Hall said. “I think the impact we’re seeing now is more economically driven. … People are still coming to the Rockies and

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The cracking that eventually makes dead trees worthless for a sawmill is not an issue for the two pellet mills. “We let the loggers do what they do, and they in turn have a place for all the beetle-kill,” said Bob Stahl, plant manager at the Rocky Mountain Pellet Co. in Walden. “We’re probably the biggest solution to a catastrophic problem. Sawmills only have a couple years. I can use them eight to 10 years.” At the Confluence Energy pellet mill in Kremmling, owner Mark Mathis is counting on a timber industry revival that will make his mill viable for several decades. “It needs to be commercially thinned,” said Mathis, who thinks the U.S. Forest Service will recognize that in the wake of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Stahl and Mathis also are relying on the maturation of the U.S. market for wood pellets, which have been popular in Europe for many years. While showing off his pellet mill and describing some of its components as “a giant coffee roaster” and “the world’s most expensive pasta press,” Stahl said it’s not a long shot, especially with current fuel prices. “Bottom line, fossil fuels are going to go through the roof,” Stahl said. “A lot of people, including your smaller municipalities, are looking at alternatives. … Europe is years ahead of us. We’re in a catch-up mode now.”

Storm Peak E xpress Four Po ints

Economics continued from 3F

Preview GRAPHIC: NICOLE MILLER/STAFF

looking for that Colorado vacation. In terms of people coming to visit and staying in our lodging, I don’t see that changing.” On the slopes of Mount Werner earlier this summer, Doug Allen admits the mountain pine beetle has, and will continue to have, a visual impact on the ski area. “Anytime you have a devastating event like this in a forest that you love, it’s hard, no doubt,” said Allen, vice president of mountain operations for the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. “Some of these grand old pines, they’re beautiful trees. The aesthetics for several years will definitely be affected. … And whatever we do, it will be expensive. There’s no way you go through an event like this without it being very expensive.” Beyond this, you’re hard pressed to get Allen to discuss the mountain pine beetle epidemic in anything but optimistic terms. He notes that most of the resort’s lodgepole pines are on the lower mountain, where their deaths will create opportunities for new ski runs. “Steamboat has always suffered from a lack of readily accessible beginner terrain,” Allen said while walking through the ski area’s Rough Rider Basin. “Our next real opportunity for developing novice terrain is in this area. (The epidemic) really gives us some opportunity to create some beginner terrain near the base of the mountain.”

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

A machine cuts the limbs off lodgepole pines at Snow Mountain Ranch near Granby.

People canoe in the reservoir at Snow Mountain Ranch, surrounded by beetle-killed pines.

Allen said Ski Corp. will remove only hazardous trees this summer while it hammers out a more comprehensive plan for mitigating the beetle kill. “This is our first priority: the safety of the skier,” said Allen, pointing at one dead tree hung up in another on the side of a ski run. “We haven’t gotten into wholesale logging just because we’re still trying to work with the Forest Service.” Allen and Evans Hall make comments that suggest the mountain pine beetle might give Steamboat a competitive advantage when it comes to tourism because of the diversity of its forests when compared to nearby resort destinations such as Grand and Summit counties. “We’re very fortunate here in that this is a very diverse forest,” Allen said. “We really only have

shocked at its speed.” As a real estate broker, Bomeisl understands the effect the loss could have on his and his neighbors’ property values, but he thinks vacant lots will be affected the most. “There is an impact,” Bomeisl said. “I can’t say that impact has been affecting values as of this time, but it could in the future.” Realtors in Grand County say current economic conditions make it nearly impossible to single out the mountain pine beetle’s impact. “If the economy was still doing what it was doing two years ago, would there be less activity because of mountain pine beetle?” Winter Park Realtor Cliff Anderson asked himself. “My answer is ‘yes.’” Off the clapboard sidewalks of Grand Lake, Elwin Crabtree,

pockets of intense lodgepole. As you look up the hill, you can see red trees, but they’re in mixed stands. When the needles fall off the trees, it will be hard to tell a difference.”

Property values Bob Bomeisl’s hidden house is about to be exposed. “They’re pretty special to me, especially this one,” said Bomeisl, referring to the doomed lodgepole pines in his Steamboat Springs front yard and the one that shields the front of his house in particular. “It’s like the entry to my house. You can’t replace a tree like that. “I noticed the bore holes, and I knew it was sure death. … I guess when it doesn’t affect you, you don’t think about it too much. But when you’re affected by it, you’re just

Reporting: Brandon Gee; Photography: Matt Stensland and John F. Russell; Design and graphics: Nicole Miller; Editing: Brent Boyer, Mike Lawrence and Allison Miriani

a 40-year veteran of the Grand County real-estate market, is less certain. He said the beetle initially had a negative impact on the market, but that it rebounded shortly thereafter. Crabtree said Routt County should expect the same. “I think you’ll expect a negative impact on the real estate market for a couple of years, but then it will level off,” Crabtree said. “We’re not seeing distress signals here.” Crabtree said most impacts on property values are site-specific. If the loss of trees reveals your neighbor’s junk, your property value may go down. But for Crabtree and others, the opposite was true. “We were upset at first,” Crabtree said. “Now, we have a 180-degree view of the Continental Divide.”


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VOLUME 122, NUMBER 5 • STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, COLORADO • www.steamboatpilot.com

The red scare

Dying forests increase wildfire danger THE LAST STAND A five-part series by the Steamboat Pilot & Today INSIDE

M

ammoth pillars of smoke churn ceaselessly in the Bridger Wilderness north of Pinedale, Wyo. The plumes turn from pure white to menacing gray as the New Fork Lakes Fire erupts in pockets of heavy, dense fuels. In the early afternoon heat, a dust devil twirls across a dirt ranch road, signaling the unstable atmospheric conditions when the potential for fire growth — and firefighter deaths — is highest. Steve Markason, an incident commander in training, has been thinking a lot lately about the mountain pine beetle that has pockmarked the wilderness with the disconcerting sight of dead and dry lodgepole pine trees. “There’s quite a bit of lodgepole kill,” Markason said. “And it’s burning pretty intense.”

Part 1: A battle lost

Part 2: Fumbled forest

This week: The red scare

Part 3: Boon or bust?

Mutton busters hang on at fair Melinda Dudley PILOT & TODAY STAFF

HAYDEN

Seven-year-old mutton busting champion Hayden Friel demonstrated Saturday that when speeding across an arena on the back of a cranky sheep, riding backward is better. “I thought I was going to go all the way across,” Hayden said, eagerly checking after each subsequent mutton buster to see whether his solid time would hold out for the rest of the competition. A herd of mutton busters, 8 years or younger and less than 70 pounds, donned hockey helmets and protective vests Saturday morning for their chance in the ring. Their parents stood by, cheering and snapping photos, as their youngsters hung on for dear life until their inevitable tumble to the ground. Young riders tried forward and backward stances out of the gates. Most were bounced off within seconds, only a few feet into the ring. Some of the younger competitors erupted into tears after somersaulting off their mount and being treated to a face full of arena dirt. Hayden, a Maine native, PAGE DESIGNED BY NICOLE MILLER

Proposal would add 187 acres to Hayden

walloped the competition on a bumpy ride across the outdoor arena, with fists full of wool, legs locked around the sheep’s neck and a scoreboard-dominating time of 10.01 seconds. Taylor Powell, 7, was psyched about his time of 3.108. The Hayden resident and annual mutton busting competitor, bounded across to his grandmother after removing his helmet to gush about his best finish ever. “Sometimes I cried, but this year I didn’t,” Taylor said. At the conclusion of the TICsponsored event Saturday, fair board member Tracy Bye presented eventual winner Hayden with a belt buckle commemorating his win, a blue ribbon and a pair of SmartWool socks — only to have Hayden reveal that he had been sporting an identical pair under his cowboy boots all along. Elsewhere at the Routt County Fairgrounds on Saturday, 4H standouts tried their hand at round robin showmanship, handling everything from chickens to cattle to more uncooperative swine. The six top showJOEL REICHENBERGER/STAFF men from each animal rotated Hayden Friel, 7, of Millinocket, Maine, managed to hang on for more than among large and small species 10 seconds during the mutton busting competition at the Routt County Fair in Hayden. Friel’s time was nearly two seconds longer than anyone else. See Fair, page 14A

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Developers are petitioning Hayden to add nearly 200 acres to town limits. Stef and Louis Nijsten and Bob Zibell have submitted plans to annex 187.5 acres to the town. The parcel adjoins Yampa Valley Regional Airport land and the partners have a development concept that stretches across two decades. The annexation requires approval from the town and the county. Developers, who also are building the Creek View project in western Hayden, are meeting with Routt County and Hayden planners this month. A public hearing is set for 7:30 p.m. Sept. 4, at a meeting of the Hayden Town Board. The developers want to start by bringing in light industrial development before moving to hotel and eventually retail space. Phase 1, scheduled for about the first one to five years, would include 35 acres of light industrial space, 20 acres for airport general aviation, a partial realignment of Routt

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County Road 51A and a gravel pit. Light industrial space is scarce, Stef Nijsten said. Zibell owns the land, and Nijsten is leading the planning. “There’s a pretty clear demand for larger lots, and that’s been made clear by people buying lots in the current business park and then putting them together,” he said. The developers, who are operating under the names Grandmother’s Inc. and BZ&W Inc., said they aim to keep their plans on track with the town of Hayden’s. “We’re right next to the airport, so everything we do we want to streamline it … for what they have there,” Nijsten said. “So the roads and infrastructure we’re proposing match the comprehensive plans of Hayden as well as the airport.” The land sits between YVRA and U.S. Highway 40. Zibell said he bought it about a year ago from Twentymile Coal Co., which is owned by Peabody Energy. See Hayden, page 14A


THE LAST STAND The mountain pine beetle and the West’s dying forests A five-part series by the Steamboat Pilot & Today ❖ Part 4, Aug. 17, 2008

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Flames from the New Fork Lakes Fire consume beetle-killed lodgepole pines in late July in the Bridger-Teton National Forest near Pinedale, Wyo.

The red scare

Dying forests increase wildfire danger across the West

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Close your eyes, and a 3,000-acre wildfire on the banks of the New Fork River in Wyoming’s Bridger Wilderness crackles deceptively, like a soothing campfire. But any sense of security is shattered quickly by the blaze’s more violent noises. The sounds of falling century-old pines clap across the meadow like gunshots, and the fire roars like a passing train when trees suddenly torch from the ground up. On the morning of July 31, smoke hangs low like a blue-tinted fog over the lakes and pastures of Sublette County, Wyo., obscuring mountain views and filling the air with a smoky scent even in Pinedale, about 20 miles south. Officials think the blaze, dubbed the New Fork Lakes Fire, was caused two days earlier by an abandoned campfire. An incident command post is just starting to take shape at a fire that will quadruple in size in less than a

STORY BY BRANDON GEE PHOTOS BY MATT STENSLAND week, forcing temporary area closures and an increase in firefighting personnel from 162 to 323. Semis and moving trucks roll into camp delivering food, water, Gatorade, showers and other supplies that will allow wildland firefighters to work 14-day shifts. Radio transmissions fill the air as Steve Markason huddles with others around a map discussing strategy. The forest surrounding the command post is interspersed with the tell-tale red needles of trees killed by the mountain pine beetle. See Fire, page 2F

Part 1: A battle lost

The social and emotional impacts of our changing forests.

Part 2: Fumbled forest

Mismanagement and nature combine to spawn an insect epidemic of unprecedented proportions.

Part 3: Boon or bust?

From biomass and logging to property values and tourism, dead timber presents economic challenges and opportunities.

Part 4: The red scare

What will happen when the red sea turns orange? A look at fire and other risks posed by millions of acres of dead and dying trees.

Part 5: Rebirth

Even as trees continue to fall prey to the bark beetle, a new forest is emerging from the scarred landscape.


2F | STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 4 ❖ SUNDAY, AUG. 17, 2008

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Flames from the New Fork Lakes Fire send smoke into the air. In two days, the fire consumed 3,000 acres.

Don’t fuel the fire Learn how to protect your home from flames Choose the right roof

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Remove unhealthy vegetation

Prune trees

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Mow and water lawn

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Thin vegetation

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Reduce fuels

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Incident commander trainee Steve Markason, right, discusses the strategy for fighting the New Fork Lakes Fire with incident commander Bill Neckels, left, and firefighter Mack McFarland.

Fire continued from 1F “This (wildfire) will go until it rains — hard,” said Markason, who leads a helitack crew out of Jackson Hole, Wyo., and is training to become an incident commander. “It’s burning really nicely.” Having just finished a course in ecosystem management — and a final project on the mountain pine beetle’s relation to hazardous fuels — Markason has been thinking a lot about how fires will behave in the West’s dying forests. The same is true of officials in Northwest Colorado, where the devastation of lodgepole forests is more total. Many are fearfully wondering what will happen when a red sea of beetle-kill trees turns orange with flames. And Bob Kittridge is surprised we have yet to find out. “I think we dodged the bullet last year,” said Kittridge, crew chief of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Wildland Fire Suppression Team. “How? I don’t know. It’s truly not an if. It’s a when.”

Worst to come In an epidemic unprecedented in its scale, the mountain pine beetle is decimating forests across the Rocky Mountain West and beyond. In just three to five years, the majority of Colorado’s large-diameter lodgepole pine trees will be dead. Of all the concerns the devastation raises, fire stands out in the eyes of many. At the Colorado Wildland

Fire and Incident Management Academy at Western State College in Gunnison in June, Kittridge told his class of introductory students what seemed to be the only logical conclusion. “It’s dead,” he said. “It’s dry. It’s going to catch easier. Fuels are taking on the same characteristics of slash, except standing up, which is more dangerous due to crowning.” A crown fire is one that advances across the tops of trees or shrubs, more or less independent of a surface fire. “If you’ve got dead needles still on the tree, that’s going to act as ladder fuel,” said Tara Mehall, a state forester based in Steamboat who attended the academy, “so you’re going to have a pretty active crown fire.” That’s bad news for Mehall, Kittridge and others tasked with putting out such blazes. “We just don’t do very well with crown fires,” said Dave Steinke, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. In British Columbia, where the mountain pine beetle has claimed 33.3 million acres of pine forests, Jim Snetsinger said there is science to back up Kittridge’s conclusion. “We’ve done some research into fire behavior in red, dead stands,” said Snetsinger, the province’s chief forester. “My sense is it burned a lot quicker. It can carry a crown fire pretty quickly. It can run pretty quickly.” As alarming as the current situation may be, Markason and other fire experts say the

How to report a wildfire What you should know: ■ Your name and the phone number you are calling from ■ Location of the fire. Use geographic names or street address numbers ■ Owner of the property ■ What is the fire burning in? Trees, brush, grass or other ■ What color is the smoke? White, gray, brown, blue, black or unknown ■ How big is the fire? The size of a campfire, house, baseball field, etc. ■ Weather and wind at the fire location ■ Are any lives or homes, buildings, campgrounds or other structures threatened? ■ How fast is the fire spreading? As fast as you can walk, run or unknown ■ Is anyone fighting the fire? Forest Service crews, fire departments, neighbors, passers-by Source: Northwest Colorado Forest Health Guide, 2008

worst dangers are to come. Dense concentrations of heavy fuels on the surface make for more intense, scarring fires, Markason said, and that’s exactly the type of fuel loading in store for pine forests throughout the Rocky Mountain West. Andy Cadenhead, a Steamboat Springs-based supervisory forester with the U.S. Forest Service, said there is an elevated fire risk while red needles remain on beetle-kill trees. Once those needles fall off, fire risks fall to pre-epidemic levels or below. But there is a second and greater elevation in risk when trees fall to the ground, one that Cadenhead said could last decades. See Fire, page 3F

Learn the lingo ■ Defensible space An area around a structure where fuels and vegetation are treated, cleared or reduced to slow the spread of wildfire toward the structure. It also reduces the chance of a structure fire moving from the buildings to the surrounding forest. Defensible space also provides room for firefighters to do their jobs. Your house is more likely to withstand a wildfire if grasses, brush, trees and other common forest fuels are managed to reduce a fire’s intensity. ■ Wildland-urban interface The area where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland. The expansion of the WUI in recent decades has significant implications for wildfire management. The WUI creates an environment in which fire can move readily between structural and vegetation fuels. Its expansion has increased the likelihood that wildfires will threaten structures and people.

Fire safety checklist 1. Choose the right roof It is important to choose a fire-resistant roofing material that is rated Class C or higher when building a house in or near forests or grasslands. Avoid flammable materials such as wood or shake shingles. It also is important to clean the roof and gutters of pine needles and leaves at least twice a year to eliminate an ignition source for potential fires. 2. Reduce fuels Stack firewood away and uphill from your home. Do not stack firewood under the deck. Store and use flammable liquids properly. 3. Remove unhealthy vegetation Trees and shrubs that are stressed, diseased, dead or dying should be removed so they do not become a fuel source for potential fires.

4. Thin vegetation The first 30 feet surrounding your home are the most important. Carefully space trees around your property. Maintain an irrigated greenbelt immediately around your home using grass or a flower garden. Plants in this area should be limited to low-flammability species. An alternative is rock or another noncombustible material. Avoid using bark or wood-chip mulch in this area. 5. Prune trees Keep trees and shrubs properly pruned. Prune all trees so the lowest limbs are 6 to 10 feet from the ground and 10 feet from a roof or chimney. Dispose of cuttings and debris promptly. 6. Mow and water lawn Mow lawn regularly, and be sure the irrigation system is well-maintained.

For more information about defensible space, visit firewise.org.

SOURCES: UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN — MADISON, COLORADO STATE FOREST SERVICE, FIREWISE.ORG. GRAPHIC: NICOLE MILLER/STAFF

Tips for selecting a contractor for tree management ■ Before you look for your contractor, whether it is for tree removals or preventive spraying, make sure to identify your objectives and what your expected outcomes are. Get forest management advice and recommendations from local land managers. ■ Contact local land management agencies for a contractor list. Agencies cannot recommend specific contractors but can provide a list. ■ Call more than one or two contractors. If possible, get at least three to five names, preferably by recommendation

and word of mouth. ■ Ask for references and check them. ■ Ask contractors for a portfolio and look through it. Look at work completed in the past and ask yourself whether this contractor fits your needs. ■ Ask contractors what kind of equipment they will be using. You may not have much knowledge about what they are telling you, but you can take that information and call your local forester to determine whether the equipment they will be using is adequate or too much. ■ Ask the contractors you’re interested

in how many people will be helping them and whether this is included in the cost. ■ Ask for copies of certificates of general, automobile and workers’ compensation insurance. ■ If hiring a spray contractor, ask for a copy of certificate for spraying applicator license. ■ Remember the lowest bid given may not meet your forest management needs, timelines and expectations. Source: Northwest Colorado Forest Health Guide, 2008


STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 4 ❖ SUNDAY, AUG. 17, 2008

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MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Students at the June Colorado Wildland Fire and Incident Management Academy in Gunnison get briefed before a field exercise.

Fire continued from 2F “It’s at least a decade away,” Cadenhead said. “It may be several decades away. … Fires with these conditions are probably going to be detrimental to the regeneration of the forest” because of their impact on soil conditions.

Action or ashes On the afternoon of June 11, light snow covered the ground and damp trees filled the forest along Routt County Road 36. While evidence of the mountain pine beetle epidemic could be seen on standing dead trees and ones that had fallen to the ground, its dangers were easy to ignore among the overall calm of the Strawberry Park forest. But the sense of danger heightened as a bone-chilling gust of wind hit a damp sweater, and the unmistakable popshred-thud of a falling tree filled the air. The tree fell harmlessly, but that’s not always the case. Routt County Emergency Management Director Chuck Vale hopes people don’t have to be scared into addressing the risks posed by the county’s glut of dead and dying trees. He is trying to figure out how to change the out-of-sight-out-ofmind mentality of many Routt County residents. At breakfast earlier that morning, Vale motioned with exasperation at a snow-covered sidewalk out the window of The Shack Café in downtown Steamboat Springs. Vale doubted many were worrying about wildfire on such a morning. “The challenge I’m having in Routt County is the mitigation side,” Vale said about efforts to get residents to safeguard their homes. “I think our worst enemy to get that done is this snow. We just about get people engaged, and then it snows. … I’m getting a sense that people don’t understand the risks around them.” John Twitchell, a Steamboat Springs-based forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, shares Vale’s concern. While touring the Willow Creek Pass subdivision in North Routt County nine days later, Twitchell pointed to homes surrounded by enormous dead trees. “That’s not a firefighter’s dream,” Twitchell said. “More a nightmare. This is what’s got us concerned is thick, thick pine like this adjacent to homes. … There’s a surprising amount of homes at risk.” Twitchell was touring the subdivision with North Routt Fire Protection District Chief Bob Reilley and Willow Creek Pass homeowner Dave Hessel. The three were discussing a wildfire protection plan that involves the creation of fuel breaks on public lands around the subdivision and the creation of defensible space around the homes themselves. Twitchell said such an approach is the only way to effectively address such a widespread catastrophe. “What I see is everyone at first tries to attack this by themselves,” Twitchell said. “But coordinated action across boundaries is always going to have the best outcome.” Reilley said fuel breaks and defensible space help eliminate the difficulty posed by crown fires. “That’s what the fuel break will hopefully allow us to do,” Reilley said. “Get fire to the

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Bob Kittridge, crew chief of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Wildland Fire Suppression Team supervises students building a fire line at the June Colorado Wildland Fire and Incident Management Academy in Gunnison.

Anatomy of a wildfire

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Lodgepole pines torch at the New Fork Lakes Fire in Wyoming.The fire started July 29 by an abandoned campfire and grew to 12,000 acres after nine days.

Learn the lingo ■ Running fire Behavior of a fire spreading rapidly with a well-defined head (the side of the fire having the fastest rate of speed).

Creeping fire Fire burning with a low-intensity flame and moving slowly.

■ Spotting Behavior of a fire producing sparks or embers that are carried by the wind and start new fires beyond the zone of direct ignition by the main fire. ■ Flare up Any sudden acceleration in the rate of spread or intensity of the fire. ■ Fire whirl Spinning vortex column of ascending hot air and gases rising from a fire and carrying aloft smoke, debris and flame. Fire whirls range in size from less than 1 foot to more than 500 feet in diameter.

Torching fire The burning of foliage, of a single tree or a small group of trees, from the bottom up.

■ Backing fire The portion of the fire with slower rates of spread and lower intensity, usually moving into the wind or down a slope. Also called a heel fire. ■ Fireline A containment or control line that is scraped or dug to mineral soil. ■ Control line All constructed or natural barriers used to contain a fire. ■ Contained The status of a wildfire suppression action meaning that a control line has been completed around the fire and any associated spot fires.

Crown fire A fire that advances along the tops of trees independent of a surface fire.

■ Controlled Cool down of all hot spots that are immediate threats to the control line.

SOURCE: NATIONAL WILDFIRE COORDINATING GROUP. GRAPHIC: NICOLE MILLER/STAFF

ground where we can fight it.” Twitchell stressed the importance of creating defensible space around homes by noting the limited resources that exist for fighting wildfires. He said firefighters sometimes must decide to let one house burn in order to save two others. “Unfortunately, it comes down to those kind of choices,” Twitchell said. “Everyone thinks we can put a fire truck on their home, but there’s no guarantee any of these people are around on a given day. How many firefighters are we going to muster with volunteers? Depends on the day. “You’ve got to do something to help us. Our first rule of thumb is to keep us safe. We’re not going to do you any good if we’re crispy critters.”

Difficult necessity “At times, you couldn’t see the eight buildings,” said Neil Willems, building and grounds superintendent at the YMCA of the Rockies’ Snow Mountain Ranch in Grand County. “The smoke was that intense. You didn’t know what was going on.” The ground still crunches beneath footsteps at the scorched site of the June 2007 “Y Fire.” Pine needles — once green, then red, now black — cover the remains of an old fireline that snakes through the torched forest. Grounds foreman John Carmichael said the fire went from the ground to the crown in about 30 seconds and carried active flames for five to six hours. See Fire, page 4F

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Sublette County firefighter John Ball walks past a sprinkler set up to protect a structure from the New Fork Lakes Fire.

Dead trees cause many dangers

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t Rockin’s River Resort north of Prince George, British Columbia, Horst Schulz is experiencing a consequence not often associated with the mountain pine beetle epidemic. “The flooding has gotten tremendous now that all the pine are dead,” Schulz said. “I had to take a boat to the house for about a week this year.” Schulz said high water forced him to push his campground’s opening date back an entire month this year, from May 15 to June 15. “There is an issue with hydrology,” said Jim Snetsinger, British Columbia’s chief forester. “These trees aren’t there any longer to suck up water from the ground. Where does it go?” Hydrology joins other smaller concerns such as water quality and blocked accesses in looking at the fallout from the North American West’s massive mountain pine beetle epidemic. With 33.3 million acres already impacted by the mountain pine beetle in British Columbia, Snetsinger is estimating it will be 10 to 15 years before the province’s hydro balance returns. Nonetheless, Snetsinger said there are too many other factors at play to blame the type of increased runoffs Schulz experienced on the pine beetle alone.

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Charred lodgepole pines stand on a hillside above the New Fork Lakes in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Andy Cadenhead expects similar impacts in Colorado. Of particular concern are slides and other mass soil movements that may occur when the ground is saturated with water formerly absorbed by lodgepole pine trees. “One thing that appears to be happening was while these trees were green, they were taking up an incredible amount of water,” said Cadenhead, a Steamboat Springs-based supervisory forester with the U.S. Forest Service. “We’ll see the water table essentially rise in the forest. If we get wet years, it will certainly increase our flooding potential.” Like Snetsinger, Cadenhead said flooding is a minor concern when considering the impacts of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Another risk is falling trees, not just ones that could hit people, but also

ones that could block roads and trails. “I think it’s safe to say there’s a time period of about 15 years where most of the trees are going to come down,” Cadenhead said. Water quality also is a concern, Cadenhead said, and one that increases substantially if and when there is a fire. The potential for sediment and ash to enter watersheds increases substantially after a fire. Officials often cite the 2002 Hayman Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado history, whose impacts on water quality still are being dealt with. “When a fire burns through an area really hot,” said Nan Stinson, a Pinedale, Wyo.-based spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, “basically all the stuff you see under our feet that holds the topsoil in place is gone.”


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STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 4 ❖ SUNDAY, AUG. 17, 2008

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

In June 2007, a fire broke out in the beetle-killed pines surrounding the YMCA of the Rockies’ Snow Mountain Ranch in Ground County. All the structures at the camp were saved because of clear-cutting done before the fire.

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

The New Fork Lakes Fire sends smoke through the lodgepole pines in Wyoming.

Fire continued from 3F “You could see the flames shooting out above this rise,” said Center Director Julie Watkins, motioning out the window of her office at the ranch. “That situation made believers out of people who were not being aggressive.” Watkins deals daily with the “real difficult” decision to start clear-cutting the property of dead lodgepole pine, which makes up an overwhelming majority of the ranch’s tree population. “We’re on schedule to complete the logging of areas really key to defensible space,” Watkins said. “And then we get to start dealing with the trail system.” Snow Mountain Ranch is a place that relies heavily on return visitors, sometimes across generations, and the removal of trees has changed one of the most cathartic experiences of visiting the ranch: a heavily wooded and tranquil arrival that served as a shift from U.S. Highway 40 to the ranch. “You transitioned into this special place that their families have been coming to for years,” Watkins said. “Suddenly, we were disrupting that memory for them. But from a safety standpoint, we just had to do it.” On July 11, Leela Nadler, a Colorado State University student, sat with a group of girls on a footbridge over a small creek at Snow Mountain Ranch. She’s been coming to the ranch for 15 years to attend the Indian

Nepalese Heritage Camp. “When I came here as a kid, there were trees everywhere,” said Nadler, who was at the camp’s kickoff cookout. “It’s really sad.” Across stump fields, several nearby buildings were visible from the picnic area, but Nadler said she remembers a time when the trees were so thick you couldn’t see any of them. Paradoxically, Nadler has lost her bearings with the increased visibility. “I actually have a hard time finding my way around,” she said. “It’s still really nice. It’s just sad because it doesn’t look like it used to. I guess I’ll get used to it.” While difficult, the blow is certainly being softened by the knowledge that clearing operations may have saved some of the ranch’s largest buildings from last year’s fire. “I’m very confident that if we hadn’t done our logging, we would have lost eight buildings,” Watkins said. “It was clear that we saved structures because of clear-cut.”

Costly cuts Clearing trees from a property can be difficult for more than sentimental reasons. Tree removals can be expensive. Prices are increasing with the amount of work being created by the mountain pine beetle, sometimes approaching $100 a tree. “Some of these tree removals are probably asking people for more than they paid for the lot years and years ago,”

Carmichael said. Even with the volume of logging under way at Snow Mountain Ranch, there are no loggers willing to pay for the wood or remove it at no cost. “We don’t profit at all from the removal,” said Willems, who noted that the ranch tries to use as much of the wood as possible in such forms as fences, benches, parking lot barricades, wood chips for playgrounds and firewood bundles for sale at the front office. Snow Mountain Ranch is supported through fees for services, membership fees and donations. At Red Creek subdivision in North Routt County, homeowner Jim Burton said he and his neighbors might have been able to make a profit off their trees had they recognized the need to remove them earlier. “It’s simple supply and demand,” Burton said. “It’s a shame we didn’t do this before. Now, we’re just hoping to minimize our expense. “We’ve just got to deal with it from a fire danger standpoint. It’s very significant, and it’s going to be worse next summer.”

A modified approach There’s a few days growth on Markason’s beard. He coughs sporadically throughout the day, blaming it on a career of inhaling smoke and dust. Behind a pair of sunglasses are the tired eyes of a man who lied awake two nights earlier, watching

the New Fork Lakes Fire glow orange off the mountainsides, appearing to be closer and more intense than it actually was. He drives to a staging area near the Willow Creek Guard Station, where Hotshots with dirt-covered faces and cloudy eyes emerge from the woods — pulaskis, shovels and other tools in tow — after constructing a fireline. Another Hotshot crew immediately replaces them, its members already sweating under the weight of the required dark green pants and bright yellow shirts made of flame-resistant Nomex. While property owners face potentially enormous bills to protect their homes from wildfires, Markason notes that officials are trying to spend far less money than they used to fighting the blazes. At the New Fork Lakes Fire, firelines are being constructed to protect private property and a Boy Scout camp, but the fire is otherwise being allowed to burn unimpeded into the wilderness. “The big take-home message for fires like this is we’re taking a different approach,” said Markason, who says he’s interested in disturbance ecology and the diversity it creates. “This is pretty much doing naturally what it’s supposed to be doing. It’s leaving a mosaic on the landscape.” The different approach to wildland firefighting is called appropriate management response. It’s a resource-management driven approach to

Smokey Bear gives a thumbs up during an event in South Routt County. Critics say Smokey has done too good of a job convincing people fire is bad.

wildfires, as opposed to the suppression-driven methods that have dominated the past 100 years. Many think those methods contributed to the mountain pine beetle epidemic by allowing lodgepole forests to grow too thick, old and susceptible to a beetle attack. “Smokey Bear has done a really good job of convincing people that fire is bad,” Kittridge said. But attitudes are changing. In between bites at The Shack Café, Vale explains one reason appropriate management response is a tough sell. Firefighters like fires, Vale said, and they like putting them out. This suppression-driven attitude was evident in Kittridge’s introductory class, where the eyes of young firefighters glazed over when discussion turned to appropriate management response. But while it’s not the sexiest course of action in the minds of these students — who eagerly waited their turn to try out a drip torch — it may be even less appealing to property owners who find themselves in the vicinity of a blaze. Kittridge told his students that gung-ho suppression was largely the result of public pressure and “ranchers who have a senator on speed dial.” “Of all natural disasters, fire’s the one they expect us to control,” said Lynn Barclay, a Craig-based fire mitigation education specialist for the Bureau of Land Management.

Reporting: Brandon Gee; Photography: Matt Stensland; Design and graphics: Nicole Miller; Editing: Brent Boyer, Mike Lawrence and Allison Miriani

“With fires, people expect us to be superhuman. … We haven’t allowed fire to play its natural job.” Resource management aside, officials say the mountain pine beetle epidemic creates environments so dangerous that they simply won’t send firefighters into them. “There isn’t a tree or a house that’s more important than a life,” Kittridge said. “They grow back — both of them.” Kittridge told his students that standing dead trees, known as snags, are the second-leading cause of all wildland fire fatalities. Colorado now has 1.5 million acres of snags created by the mountain pine beetle alone, and anything from a gust of wind to a footstep can bring them down. “You don’t hear them,” Steinke said. “You can’t see them. They just kill.” While Cadenhead doesn’t agree that fire suppression was a contributing factor to the mountain pine beetle epidemic, he does agree that fires should be allowed to play more of a natural role in the absence of other management options that help foster age-class diversity in the forest. “Last year, we played with (appropriate management response),” Kittridge said. “This year we’re putting it in place. There’s going to be some changes. “Why don’t we ride horse and buggy anymore? Because we found a better way.”


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VOLUME 122, NUMBER 6 • STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, COLORADO • www.steamboatpilot.com

Rebirth A new forest is emerging

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carpet of young lodgepole pine trees unfolds below a rough side road outside Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. Steve Orange walks among the overwhelmingly green adolescents at his waist. “Lodgepole like this, they like the light,” says Orange, a forester with the Routt National Forest. “They’re sun-loving. You open it up like this, and they’re going to do pretty well.” The trees are sprouting from the remnants of the 2002 Hinman Fire, which burned 15,000 acres in North Routt County. To the south, on a crimson hillside across the Middle Fork of the Elk River, the mountain pine beetle similarly is transforming the forest. “Even with the beetle situation, this is what areas could look like,” Orange says. “Everything’s starting over. It just takes a little time.”

THE LAST STAND A five-part series by the Steamboat Pilot & Today INSIDE

Part 1: A battle lost

Part 2: Fumbled forest

Part 3: Boon or bust?

Part 4: The red scare

Market clashes with retail

Vision 2030 report: Community valued

Businesses express concerns about advantages for street vendors

Melinda Dudley

Blythe Terrell

PILOT & TODAY STAFF

PILOT & TODAY STAFF

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS

Some Steamboat Springs business owners aren’t thrilled with the setup of the local farmers market. The Saturday market, on Sixth Street between Lincoln Avenue and Oak Street, continues through next weekend. It includes vendors who sell food, crafts, hats, art and clothing, among other wares. But about 15 business owners recently signed a letter sent to the board of Mainstreet Steamboat Springs, saying they thought the market gave vendors with nonperishable wares an advantage over shops, Mainstreet Manager Tracy Barnett said. “They want it to be a total farmers market, not having crafts as well,” she said. “Their issue, although they don’t say it’s competition, is that vendors don’t pay property tax and don’t have to maintain sidewalks, so it creates unfair competition, unfair market practices.” Mainstreet started the marSee Market, page 14A PAGE DESIGNED BY NICOLE MILLER

When locals were asked what they would like Routt County and their community to look like in 20 years, the most common answer was surprisingly simple. “Friendliness. That’s what people value the most,” Vision 2030 co-chair Kathy Stokes said. “And that’s great to hear, because that is our community — that sense of character.” Vision 2030 is a collaborative citizens’ effort to help define the future of the Yampa Valley, update 1994’s Vision 2020 Report of Recommendations and create a community vision. In gathering information through community meetings and surveys during the past year, Vision 2030’s recently released interim report revealed the largest percentage of respondents — 35.9 percent — were most concerned about preserving the character of the Yampa Valley. Of those who thought character was the top prior-

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Kathie Cummins, left, and Darlene Swain, of Fort Worth, Texas, check out bags for sale Saturday at the farmers market.

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ity, more than 70 percent said that meant retaining smalltown feel and friendliness, and nearly 22 percent defined preserving character as maintaining a connection to local history and roots — with historic buildings, a Western feel and ranching tradition. Vision 2030 aims to take these subjective opinions and value judgments from area residents, then have relevant stakeholders consider and use them in tangible ways. For example, developers could keep in mind that people want a certain type of community — they’re not hoping to see strip malls and big box stores, or live in stereotypical suburb-type communities where they don’t know their neighbors. “If someone says what they really value most is friendliness, with the Steamboat 700 (proposed development), that means it should have bike paths, schools, community meeting places — all those things that create community,” Stokes said. See Vision 2030, page 14A

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THE LAST STAND The mountain pine beetle and the West’s dying forests A five-part series by the Steamboat Pilot & Today ❖ Part 5, Aug. 24, 2008

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

North Routt County resident Charlie Cammer looks up the stairs in his home, which he built at his wife’s request using beetle-killed, blue-stain lodgepole pine.

Rebirth

As dying pines are mourned, a new forest is emerging

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When Charlie Cammer built his wife, Barb, a bookcase out of blue-stain wood eight years ago, he couldn’t have been prepared for her response. “Can you make me a house like that?” Cammer said his wife asked. “And here we are.” Where we are is inside a first-floor bedroom of Cammer’s house in the Badger Meadows subdivision of North Routt County. The room is darkening with the day. Cammer sits on the edge of a crisply made bed, staring reminiscently across the room at the bookcase, remembering his wife’s request and the trees that used to populate the forest beyond the window at his back. When Cammer built the bookcase in 2000, he had only first begun to notice lodgepole pine trees falling prey to the mountain pine beetle, leaving a tell-tale blue-stain fungus on the inside of their trunks. As shocking as Barb’s request for

STORY BY BRANDON GEE PHOTOS BY MATT STENSLAND a house must have been, Cammer was even more staggered when, within a few hundred feet, the beetle provided him with enough dead, blue-stain trees to fulfill it. “She got her wish,” Cammer said. And more. From coffee tables to bar tops, Cammer’s house is full of furniture with the distinct, marbled look of a beetle-killed tree. Cammer since has built a barn, and he plans to build a second house on an adjacent lot — all out of dead trees. The Cammers’ current house, too large for the empty-nesters, is for sale. See Rebirth, page 2F

Part 1: A battle lost

The social and emotional impacts of our changing forests.

Part 2: Fumbled forest

Mismanagement and nature combine to spawn an insect epidemic of unprecedented proportions.

Part 3: Boon or bust?

From biomass and logging to property values and tourism, dead timber presents economic challenges and opportunities.

Part 4: The red scare

What will happen when the red sea turns orange? A look at fire and other risks posed by millions of acres of dead and dying trees.

Part 5: Rebirth

Even as trees continue to fall prey to the bark beetle, a new forest is emerging from the scarred landscape.


2F | STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 5 ❖ SUNDAY, AUG. 24, 2008

Rebirth continued from 1F Losing a tree, let alone hundreds or thousands, is hard. Walking from the blue-stain barn to the blue-stain house, Cammer remembers one of his favorite trees and points to its stump near the edge of his driveway. “It was the biggest, ugliest tree you ever wanted to see,” Cammer says tenderly. “I saved the bottom of that tree, and we’ll use it again. They’re all part of the next house.” For the Cammers, reusing the wood has softened the blow of their loss. In the construction of the barn, Cammer and his three boys worked through what he considers an important part of their grieving process. “They’re still a part of us,” Cammer said of the trees. “It kind of helps us remember what it was like when we first got here. … The wood’s dead, and you’re just utilizing that resource and giving it a home.” Walking across his property, Cammer is too easily excited to dwell very long on the sadness of lost trees. He notes his new views and points out wild roses and baby firs that are growing up in areas previously shaded by lodgepole pines. Some lodgepoles are growing back too, and while treading carefully through a field to find some, he stops short in amazement. “Look at that,” he said, staring straight down at three young lodgepoles barely taller than the grass. “I can’t believe I set my foot in the middle of three trees. The rebirth has begun.”

The next forest While touring the forest near the Willow Creek Pass subdivision in North Routt, John Twitchell makes a similar observation. “Look at all the cones on the ground,” said Twitchell, a Steamboat Springs-based forester with the Colorado State Forest Service. “The next forest is here, it’s just waiting to come. … The forest isn’t going away. It’s going to grow.” Not everyone has had as much time to cope as Cammer. Many Routt County residents are only beginning to lose their trees. Like Cammer, Twitchell described the experience as similar to the grieving process, and he admits he’s still working through it himself. “It’s emotional, whether it’s a single tree in the front yard or a stand of trees,” Twitchell said. “Almost every landowner I deal with … this has a punch-to-the-stomach type of effect. There’s usually a little bit of anger, but, eventually, they do get to acceptance.”

The birth of a lodgepole pine stand is under way at Charlie Cammer’s property, where saplings stand just a few inches tall.

After 24 years in her Strawberry Park home, Peggy Berglund has lost all of her pine trees to the mountain pine beetle. “I’m sad, but it’s Mother Nature at work,” Berglund said. “I’ll replant something — probably not pine.” Thick concentrations of same-aged lodgepole pine trees proved unhealthy for pine forests across the Rocky Mountain West. Combined with the right climatic conditions, namely drought, these stressed forests provided what Andy Cadenhead called a virtually unlimited supply of food and habitat for the mountain pine beetle. The result was a perfect breeding ground for an expansion of the pest that has claimed 1.5 million acres in Colorado and likely will kill the majority of Colorado’s large-diameter lodgepole pine trees within the next three to five years. “What we’re seeing is an intensity of the epidemic that has not been seen since the area was settled,” said Cadenhead, a Steamboat Springs-based supervisory forester with the U.S. Forest Service. Although many property owners, like Berglund, are skittish of lodgepole pine after the pain of the mountain pine beetle epidemic, Tara Mehall said it is an unnecessary apprehension. She recommends landowners plant lodgepole pine, noting that it is one of Colorado’s fastest-growing native species. A young pine takes about five years to get established, Mehall said, then grows about a foot a year. “It’s going to eat all the mature pine and move on,” Mehall, a Steamboat Springs-based forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, said about the mountain pine beetle. “Lodgepole pine is here for a reason. It’s a native species.” Along with aspen, it’s also a seral species, meaning it starts growing in natural succession after forest disturbances such as fire, logging or, in this case, insect epidemic. “They’re a little bit competitors,” Twitchell said about aspen and lodgepole pine. Many foresters are predicting aspen trees to come on stronger than lodgepole pine in the bark beetle’s wake. Twitchell said aspen stands have very large root systems that often are lying dormant beneath the lodgepole pine stands they competed with after previous disturbances. “There’s pretty general thinking that aspen will be successful,” Twitchell said. According to Wayne Shepherd, a retired U.S. Forest Service silviculturist, lodgepole also may replace itself, but only in areas where there is enough See Rebirth, page 3F

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF


STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 5 ❖ SUNDAY, AUG. 24, 2008

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MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

John Anarella, a Yampa-based wilderness ranger, looks over the Sheriff Reservoir into the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. On the spillway is what Anarella guessed is the remains of a spruce tree that was killed during the spruce beetle epidemic 50 years ago.

Rebirth continued from 2F sunlight. In mixed stands where other tall trees are surviving as the pines fall, lodgepole could diminish or disappear. Mehall predicts that, eventually, Colorado will have a forest that doesn’t look too different from the current one, but that will have significantly more ageclass and species diversity. “People need to understand that the next forest is already starting to grow,” Mehall said. “As foresters and working for the state, we’re really trying to prepare for the next forest. We’re pretty much beyond the beetle. We’re not going to stop the beetle.”

‘A teachable moment’ After the loss of Colorado’s pine forests, Twitchell hopes environmentalists and others will realize there are benefits to forest management from more than a commodity standpoint. Twitchell said the forest has intrinsic social, even spiritual, values that also happen to be economic values. “Managing that takes on more than just making boards,” Twitchell said. “You can have the foresight to manage for that value.” Also noting Colorado’s forests are “a billion-dollar backdrop for tourism,” Twitchell said he hopes the public will be more accepting of forest management after witnessing the beetle’s devastation. “This is a teachable moment,” he said. Tied to that, Twitchell said, is a need for the U.S., a net importer of lumber from far-off places such as Siberia, to create markets for local wood. In Colorado, Twitchell said work needs to be done to correct misperceptions of inferiority when it comes to blue-stain wood. The use of wood ties up the carbon held in trees and helps regenerate the forest, Twitchell said. “It’s probably very environmental for us to look at ways we can use local wood,” Twitchell said. “What a nice symmetry that could be.” Cadenhead thinks the changes in public sentiment Twitchell hopes for are indeed happening, and he sees an opportunity to prevent a similar catastrophe in the future. Cadenhead said tremendous amounts of fire in the mid1800s reset the clock on many of the West’s forests. Forest managers didn’t start intervening in these forests until a century later, which he said was too late to prevent a tremendous number of acres from becoming

highly susceptible to the mountain pine beetle. “That’s the loaded gun,” Cadenhead said, “and the trigger is the drought they had.” The pine beetle epidemic is similarly resetting the forest, but Cadenhead said foresters now have an opportunity to intervene earlier to promote age-class and species diversity. In Canada, officials are learning to pay more attention to climate change in their forest management decisions. In British Columbia, increasing temperatures have eliminated for more than 20 years the kind of severe cold snaps needed to wipe out a beetle epidemic that has claimed 33.3 million acres of lodgepole pine forests. “It’s made us more acutely aware of the risks associated with climate change,” said Jim Snetsinger, British Columbia’s chief forester. “You have to keep a close eye on what’s going on in your forest.” Snetsinger cited trees moving into new climes as climate changes. In response, Snetsinger said foresters are looking at how to ensure “ecosystem resilience” by facilitating the movement of trees north and upward in elevation. “What we want to try and do is anticipate where trees should go,” Snetsinger said. “In this particular instance, the mountain pine beetle is going to do what it’s going to do, and we’re trying to do everything we can to get healthy, green forests back. … While it is a natural catastrophe in something of epic proportions, the forest will recover.”

No regrets John Anarella is more likely to shrug his shoulders than shed a tear at the mountain pine beetle epidemic decimating forests across Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West. Anarella, a Yampa-based wilderness ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, is content to watch the forest evolve and grow as unimpeded as the graying hair that hangs in a braided ponytail down the length of his back. “I’m kind of the preservationist,” Anarella said. “I’m not the forester. I’m the curator of the museum. It’s my job to show people in 500 years what forests look like without human intervention.” Leaning over a bridge railing near Sheriff Reservoir in Rio Blanco County, Anarella points to a thick, green forest below the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. The spruce beetle devastated the area half a century ago, and one of its victims hangs over a spillway

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Colorado State Forest Service forester John Twitchell, left, and North Routt County resident Dave Hessel prepare to survey beetle-infected trees in the Willow Creek Pass subdivision.

beneath the bridge. “There’s a forest that was red 50 years ago,” Anarella said. “Doesn’t look so horrible, does it?” A mix of green trees, shrubs and wildflowers surround the water just outside the wilderness area. “That’s what you hope for is this mosaic,” Anarella said. “So that when something comes in, it doesn’t wipe it all out.” Anarella’s intimate relationship with Mother Nature is evidenced by the way he calls her “Mom.” While foresters and others scramble to respond to and mitigate the impacts of the pine beetle epidemic, this New York native and former musician takes a broader view. “I have a luxury job where whatever the forest is doing is just OK,” Anarella said. Fireweed, a purple wildflower that thrives after disturbances, glows brilliantly in the meadows. Anarella’s ponytail hangs from a Colorado Rockies hat and sways across a green Yampa Ranger District T-shirt as he walks up Sand Creek Trail toward the wilderness area. He notes aspen groves that likely flourished after the spruce beetle and 20- to 30-year-old fir and spruce trees that rise above, and sometimes directly out of, rotting trees on the forest floor. “There’s your new forest right over the old forest,” Anarella said. Determining when the new forests will arrive after the mountain pine beetle is a tricky task. While saplings already are sprouting among dead trees and places more advanced in their pine losses, such as Grand County, are starting to see the aspen boom foresters have predicted, Twitchell said most people won’t notice the new forest until trees start to rise above their heads.

As they leave standing dead trees in their wake, insect epidemics make for a more prolonged resetting of the forest than immediate stand-replacing events such as fire or logging. But regeneration in the pine forests may be quicker than in the spruce forests Anarella toured. Lodgepole pines have shorter life cycles and shallower roots than spruce trees. While a huge green forest below Pyramid Peak in the Flat Tops still is interspersed with silver bands from standing spruce trees 50 years dead, Cadenhead said most dead pine trees will fall in the next 15 years. “It kind of depends on what happens in those stands,” Twitchell said. “Natural, undisturbed regeneration will be delayed a little bit. If there’s a disturbance like fire or logging, then that next forest … might get kind of a jump on things.” Left alone, Twitchell said, the regeneration could take 20 to 30 years. “It is kind of complex,” Twitchell said. “It’s not going to be the same everywhere. It’s going to take longer than a fire. But removing the dead trees will give the forest a jump.” That’s exactly what Cammer has done, but not necessarily with an eye on 20 to 30 years out. Standing in front of his house, watching him giddily move from the spot where three baby lodgepoles surrounded his foot to a rapidly growing group of aspens, it’s clear Cammer is more than happy with the present. “I’m still OK with all these changes,” Cammer said. “I’m still thrilled to death to be here. It’s not like I’m living out on the prairie. It’s OK. I’m not regretting moving here. I’m not regretting cutting trees down. We’re just working with nature. And we’re still living the dream.”

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Anarella examines what remains of the spruce trees that were killed during the spruce beetle epidemic in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area 50 years ago.

Blue-stain wood FAQs Q. What is blue stain? A. As the mountain pine beetle attacks pine trees, it introduces fungal spores into the wood. The fungus kills the tree and turns the wood a blue/gray color. Q. Is blue-stain wood still as strong as regular wood? A. Yes. The fungi do not cause decay or rot problems. Q. Are the fungi in blue-stain wood dangerous? A. The fungi are not mold and are considered harmless with respect to wood products and people. Q. What can be made out of bluestain wood? A. The wood can be used to create the same products as regular wood, such as paneling, furniture, trim and other wood products. It also can be burned as fuel.

Wood lifespan Beetle-killed tree Wood from beetle-killed trees can be used by saw mills for three to five years after the tree dies.

Dry, cracked tree After five years, sun and rain drys and cracks the wood, and it can only be used as biomass.

SOURCE: NORTHWEST COLORADO FOREST HEALTH GUIDE. GRAPHIC: NICOLE MILLER/STAFF


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STEAMBOAT PILOT & TODAY ❖ THE LAST STAND: PART 5 ❖ SUNDAY, AUG. 24, 2008

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Aspens are the dominant species at the Red Creek subdivision in North Routt County, where mature lodgepoles were thinned.

Spruce, aspen losses could follow pine devastation A tremendous loss of spruce and aspen trees could make up the next chapter in the drastic transformation of Colorado’s forests after the mountain pine beetle eats itself out of house and home. The spruce bark beetle continues to linger at concerning levels after windthrow events toppled spruce trees across the state, providing an ideal breeding and feeding ground for an outbreak of the pest that has always existed in Colorado’s forests. Doug Allen will never forget his up-close and personal encounter with one such event — a calamitous storm later dubbed the Routt Divide Blowdown — that kick-started the local spruce beetle boom on the afternoon of Oct. 24, 1997. Allen, vice president of mountain operations for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., needed a drawing that was on the Thunderhead peak of Mount Werner. With most mountain crews off for the afternoon, Allen hopped in a truck to go get the drawing himself. Allen first noted a strong wind and then the clouds. As he made his way up Burgess Creek Road, it started to snow incredibly hard. “It was pretty wild,” said Allen, who recalled the afternoon on a drive up Mount Werner earlier this summer. Despite the weather, Allen decided to press on. “I thought I’d just grab the drawing and run,” he said. But it wasn’t long before drifts started forming on the road. “I got to the point where I could not go any farther,” Allen said. “As I was coming down the hill, you could hear the trees snapping.” In what the U.S. Forest Service would call the largest known forest blowdown ever recorded in the Rocky Mountains, the storm took down 20,000 acres of oldgrowth forest in a stretch several miles wide and 20 miles long in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area and Routt National Forest. Despite the heavy snow, Allen remembers the road was brown with an uncanny amount of needles being blown from the trees as he escaped the mountainside unharmed. The downed trees helped set the stage for a spruce beetle infestation. The separate and unrelated mountain pine beetle epidemic since has eclipsed the spruce bark beetle by more than a million acres, but land managers warn a tremendous loss of spruce trees could be forthcoming. While efforts to halt the spruce bark beetle’s spread in Northwest Colorado — including on the slopes of Mount Werner — have proved mostly successful, the infestation is spreading in other parts of the state, said John Twitchell, a Steamboat Springsbased forester with the Colorado State Forest Service.

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

Doug Allen, vice president of mountain operations for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., vividly remembers the Oct. 24, 1997, blowdown that ignited the local spruce beetle boom.

“There’s still pockets of it in North Routt,” Twitchell said. “It’s still a concern.” According to the 2008 Northwest Colorado Forest Health Guide, windthrow events in southern Colorado — like the Routt Divide Blowdown before them — have set the stage for booming populations of spruce bark beetle. The spruce bark beetle infestation encompassed about 97,000 acres in 2007, up from 68,000 acres in 2006. A spruce bark beetle epidemic could be more devastating to Colorado ski areas than the mountain pine beetle because most resorts’ upper reaches are in spruce forests, according to the forest health guide. Researchers are concerned about studies that show a trend in the beetle that has shortened its lifespan from two years to one. This allows the beetle to propagate more quickly. Aspen trees also are under attack statewide. Aerial surveys showed 334,000 acres of aspen decline and mortality in 2007, the third year in a row of unexplained aspen decline in Colorado. “Certainly there’s a lot of concern about our aspen, another very important tree to our scenery,” Twitchell said. “What I see (in Northwest Colorado) is a lot of problems with the aspen. But I also see it sprouting real well. Other parts of the state are concerned because they’re not seeing the regeneration.” The forest health guide says researchers are designing a study to determine the specific symptoms and causes of aspen decline. “If aspen root systems are unable to produce new aspen suckers, aspen clones that have existed for millennia will be lost,” the forest health guide says. Although aspen decline and spruce beetle — along with fir decline and the ips bark beetle — present a challenge for land managers and owners, Twitchell doubts these forest health issues will ever pack the punch of the mountain pine beetle. “I’m not making any predictions,” Twitchell said, “but that’s not what I’m seeing.”

What’s threatening the forests? Aspen diseases For the third year in a row, unexplained aspen decline occurred in western Colorado. Experts have not determined what is killing the trees and their root systems. Preliminary assessments show many different causal agents.

Marssonina blight The Marssonina fungus causes the most common disease on aspen foliage. Although there is leaf discoloration, this condition usually is not damaging. Heavy infestations will cause early leaf drop.

Trunk rot Phellinus igniarius decay fungus enters though old branch stubs or other wounds. Affected trees often are used by hole-nesting birds.

Poplar borer The wood-boring beetle lays eggs on the bark of the aspen. The larvae then tunnel, weakening the wood. Entry and exit holes of the beetle invite fungi, which can result in limb breakage.

Black canker

A dead spruce tree is surrounded by healthy trees near the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.

MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

The slowly developing canker is caused by the fungus Ceratoeystis fimbriata and is easily recognized. The canker rarely kills the tree because of its slow development.

Spruce beetle Like the mountain pine beetle, the spruce beetle has been killing trees across Colorado for decades. Aerial surveys show the current spruce beetle problem affected about 97,000 acres across Colorado in 2007, up from 68,000 acres in 2006. MATT STENSLAND/STAFF

SOURCE: NORTHWEST COLORADO FOREST HEALTH GUIDE

Healthy spruce trees near the Flat Tops Wilderness Area slowly are growing tall enough to reach the tops of the dead spruce, which have remained standing for 50 years because of their strong root systems.

Reporting: Brandon Gee; Photography: Matt Stensland; Design and graphics: Nicole Miller; Editing: Brent Boyer, Mike Lawrence and Allison Miriani

The Last Stand  

A five-part series by the Steamboat Pilot and Today examining the devestating effects of the mountain pine beatle on the Rocky Mountains.