Up until quite recently, the pine beetle epidemic in Colorado was limited to a five county area along the Continental Divide. However, recent forest surveys indicate that the beetle has crossed the Divide and is moving eastward. The Forest Service’s annual surveys that are produced by ’stitching’ together aerial photographs have enabled the forest service to view the rapid acceleration of the beetles’ northeasterly march. Once restricted to high country hamlets like Breckenridge, Fraser and Steamboat Springs, the hungry beetles are quickly moving into the foothills and front range near Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins. According to Kyle Patterson at Rocky Mountain National Park, the pine beetles have reached “epic proportions.”
Although the beetle is a full-time resident of the temperate coniferous forests of the Rocky Mountains, their numbers have grown exponentially in the last ten years, fed by a ‘perfect storm’ of contributing factors, including a steady pattern of rising temperatures.
In the past, extreme cold temperatures at higher altitudes have significantly reduced beetle populations. But, ever since the most recent outbreak began in the mid-1990s, extreme cold periods in the Rockies have not been extreme enough. For freezing temperatures to affect a large number of larvae during the middle of winter, temperatures of at least 30 degrees below zero must be sustained for at least five days.
Locals have come to accept that, for the most part, the beetle cannot be stopped. The good news is that folks in the mountain towns of Colorado are not willing to simply let the beetles win. Facing daily changes to their familiar green landscapes, and dealing with the potential of catastrophic wildfire, large-scale erosion leading to watershed quality problems, and loss of tourism dollars, communities in Colorado are forming innovative, multilevel collaborative partnerships to come up with new ideas and plans of action for an epidemic that knows no political boundaries.
The biggest obstacle for community organizations is not political will, it is the significant resources required for the large-scale thinning of at-risk areas. Currently, the average price of thinning one acre of forests in Summit County, CO is about $2000. Limited funding obviously means that not every acre can be treated. The reason for the high cost of forest thinning is that there is no market for the beetle-kill wood.
“There’s simply not enough public money to thin the forests. The only way to do this is to find some way to add value to this material. With small-diameter lodgepole pine, there aren’t a lot of options.”