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From the Associated Press via The Fort Collins Coloradoan:
Over the past two decades, more than 120,000 acres of the Weminuche Wilderness — Colorado’s largest designated wilderness area at 488,210 acres — have fallen prey to the destructive spruce beetle.
In its wake, the spruce beetle has left vast areas of dead trees, most visible over Wolf Creek Pass. However, the spruce beetle, for the most part, targets only Engelmann spruce at elevations of about 9,000 feet.
The pine beetle, on the other hand, is another destructive force all its own.
From 1996 to 2016, the pine beetle ripped through more than 3.4 million acres of Colorado’s forests – about 14 percent – according to the Colorado State Forest Service, by far the state’s largest infestation.
However, the majority of forests affected by the pine beetle were in northern areas of the state. Southwest Colorado, for the most part, has been relatively unaffected by Colorado’s most harmful tree pest.
That is until recently.
The Forest Service’s Fitzgerald said an annual survey of an area by Vallecito Lake, northeast of Durango, found that a number of ponderosa pine trees appeared dead because of beetle kill.
“We did what we could do to remove the population there, but it made me concerned the beetles may be increasing up there,” she said. “We just haven’t seen too much pine beetle on the Columbine District.”
Upon further inspection, it turned out there were three subspecies of bark beetle that appeared responsible for the kill-off.
The western pine beetle hit the tree’s main body. The ips beetle worked on the top of the tree, as well as its limbs. And the red turpentine beetle ate away at the base of the tree.
“Any one of those beetles don’t necessarily do enough to kill a tree, but when they all get together, you start seeing mortality,” Fitzgerald said. “The length and number of different kinds of beetles attacking all at once is unprecedented as far as we know.”
This particular kill-off is a new discovery for forest managers in this region, which prompted other surveys that found the pine beetle at work near Rockwood, Junction Creek and Falls Creek.
Kent Grant, a district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, said southwest Colorado has seen periodic outbreaks of pine beetle, but current conditions in the forests here have spelled out a sort of perfect storm.
Most of the ponderosa trees at risk are more than a 100 years old in densely forested areas.
“When trees are getting older, and at the same time competing for sunlight, nutrients and moisture, they’re stressed and easier targets,” Grant said.
Plus, Grant said the effects of climate change are added to the mix: warmer winters translate to longer seasons for beetles to take their toll, and drought weakens a tree’s ability to defend itself.
“Bark beetles are native, but when the conditions are right, then that’s when we start to see more and more tree mortality,” he said.
And with climate change, “we’re not used to seeing this kind of mortality.”
Unfortunately, there’s not much in the way of preventing a beetle outbreak. Certain steps, such as thinning and prescribed burns, can hold off a massive die-off, but those costly measures can work only for so long…
Fitzgerald said at this point, the pine beetle activity is not at an “epidemic” level, but it’s worth keeping a very cautious eye on. The Forest Service is evaluating its options to get out on the front end.
Some good news, she said, is that there are tree stands in the area that seem to have fought off the pine beetle’s attack.
In the meantime, Fitzgerald said people need to be aware that cutting wood could attract beetles at certain times of the year. And, it’s important that recreationists do not damage any trees, thereby making them easier prey for beetles.
“So far, it’s natural,” Fitzgerald said. “I just don’t want it to get any bigger.”
Here’s an in-depth report from Laurie Dunklee writing in The North Denver Tribune. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:
Their 80×50 Climate Goal Stakeholder Report suggests accelerating the strategies already underway in order to meet the goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80 percent in Denver by the year 2050 (compared to 2005 levels). That goal was set in Denver’s 2015 Climate Action Plan. “Future generations will judge us on how well we preserved the habitability of our only home—Earth,” says the report’s introduction.
One of the accelerated targets of the recent 80×50 Climate Goal report is to power 100 percent of Denver’s electricity through renewable sources by 2030. “More renewable energy on the grid is the most important thing because the grid powers other points, like heating office buildings, homes and electric vehicles. The cleaner the grid, the cleaner it is to power all these things,” said Tom Herrod, Climate & GHG Program Administrator with the Environmental Quality Division of Denver’s Department of Environmental Health.
Electricity providers have been required since 2004 to increase the percentage of their power from renewable sources. In 2016, 29 percent of Xcel Energy’s power mix was renewable energy. “Xcel already has made a big commitment to raise that percentage to 55 percent by 2026,” said Herrod. “We’re having discussions with them about lots of options. Innovation is moving quickly, so the 100 percent goal is possible.”
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has lifted an emergency fish salvage at Harvey Gap Reservoir. Effective immediately, all usual bag and possession limits for the various fish species are back in place.
The reservoir is steadily refilling after the Silt Water Conservancy District lowered levels to perform an inspection of the reservoir’s outlet infrastructure. According to Silt Water, they found no significant concerns.
“It depends on snowfall, but even if we have an average winter, water-based recreation at the reservoir should be pretty much back to normal by spring,” said Park Manager Brian Palcer. “However, folks may still have an opportunity to enjoy canoeing or kayaking before the reservoir ices over this winter.”
Harvey Gap Reservoir currently does not have an Aquatic Nuisance Species inspection station. All watercraft normally requiring an inspection cannot launch at Harvey Gap until further notice.
Muddy conditions still exist around the water’s edge and everyone is advised to use caution and avoid becoming stuck in deep mud.
Harvey Gap State Park is a day-use area only, except when fishing. Overnight camping and pets are prohibited.
A valid park pass is required, available at self service stations at Harvey Gap State Park or at the Visitor Center at nearby Rifle Gap State Park.
Farmers Irrigation Company owns Harvey Gap Reservoir. The Silt Water Conservancy District is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the reservoir and associated irrigation water delivery infrastructure. CPW leases the surface of the reservoir and manages the park’s trails, day-use areas and fishery.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Mike Porras):
Effective immediately, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is instituting a voluntary fishing closure at a popular area on the Frying Pan River located downstream from the Ruedi Reservoir Dam. The fishing spot – known locally as the ‘toilet-bowl’ – will experience significantly reduced flow as water that normally feeds the pool will be re-routed to facilitate required dam maintenance.
Work on the dam – owned and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation – could continue through Nov. 10; however, it could take longer if additional work is necessary.
“The situation will leave the fish in the pool isolated, stressed and very easy to catch,” said Area Aquatic Biologist Kendall Bakich. “It would not be very sporting to fish in this area until after conditions improve.”
Bakich says the angling community complied with a voluntary closure when a similar situation occurred last year.
“We appreciate everyone’s patience.” she said. “We will let the public know when conditions improve and when the voluntary fishing closure is lifted.”
Anglers can expect to see signage advising of the closure and are urged to find alternative fishing locations in the meantime.
Although the closure is voluntary, CPW officials say a more stringent emergency closure enforceable by law is an option if angler compliance is minimal.
For more information about the voluntary fishing closure, contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Glenwood Springs office at 970-947-2920.
For more information about work on the dam and dam operations, contact Tim Miller of the Bureau of Reclamation at 970-962-4394.
From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):
Bags were packed, but then the wind shifted. Emergency over—for this time
Breckenridge was full of people the day last summer that fire erupted in the nearby Tenmile Range. “It was scary. It was so close,” says Peter Grosshuesch, the town’s director of planning.
July 5 was a warm day, even at 9,600 feet in elevation. The three feet of wet, spring snow that had doused Summit County six weeks before had vanished. More important than daytime heat was uncommon overnight warmth: temperatures dropped only to about 60, instead of the normal 40s.
Grosshuesch watched the smoke billow into the sky from his office in Breckenridge, about four miles away. “Everybody got real serious, real fast,” he remembers.
Flames pushed 150 feet above the top of the trees as the fire roared through stands of lodgepole pine, both live and dead, then invaded the band of spruce-fir.
High wind can easily send firebrands aloft for a mile and onto roofs and into front yards. Residents in the most vulnerable neighborhood near Breckenridge, a rural subdivision called Peak 7, were evacuated. But some had begun wondering if this fast-moving fire would reach Breckenridge itself.
Then the winds shifted again, turning the blaze back on itself. The fire was contained and then extinguished. The emergency was over—this time.
“We were very lucky,” says Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, on whose lands the fire occurred. The winds, had they not changed, might well have pushed the fire through the rural subdivision and to the Breckenridge ski resort. Beyond was Breckenridge, the town. “It looked like there was nothing to stop it.”
The question posed by the Breckenridge fire is whether enough has been done to abate the risk. It’s a question worth pondering far beyond Colorado’s Summit County as fire season lengthens and intensifies even as construction of homes continues into what is called the wildland-urban interface.
Mountain towns this summer had many reasons to be reminded of their own risks. Smoke in Whistler from fires in the interior of British Columbia was “ungodly,” in the words Grosshuesch, who was there for a visit. Fires also raged in Montana and Idaho while the beetles killing spruce trees in southern Colorado continued northward toward Crested Butte.
This autumn, wildfire has killed 42 people in the wine country north of San Francisco and destroyed 5,700 homes and other structures. The Napa Valley has a different climate, drier and more Mediterranean, than ski towns.
But there’s also this: high mountain towns are warming, perhaps more rapidly than lower elevations. It’s possible the fire risk is also escalating more rapidly. That’s one of the possible take-aways that came within a strong wind during July of incinerating Breckenridge.
Large-scale wildfires have always occurred in high mountain valleys, if perhaps not very often. For example, paleoecological research has shown evidence of a large-scale fire in the early 1600s that burned much of the forest in the Fraser Valley, home to Winter Park.
Fires, however, were virtually unknown as resort communities were built around ski areas during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a cooler, wetter time, and many forests had been logged heavily in the century before. The trees were still relatively young, and those fires that did occur were quickly suppressed.
Breckenridge and Summit County—and many other mountain communities—continued to believe they were different, their forests more like asbestos, yet still lovely. Who among the oldest residents—and to be clear, there weren’t that many older residents in the young ski towns—could remember anything else?
That same sense of exceptionalism continued even as fires raged most of the summer of 1988 in Yellowstone National Park and then, in the 1990s, in the foothills along Colorado’s Front Range southwest of Denver.
Then came 2002, hot winds in April eviscerating the thin snowpack and producing a peak runoff six weeks early that was almost too feeble to be noticed. In the first weekend of June, major forest fires erupted near Durango, in Glenwood Springs, and west of Colorado Springs, the latter going on to burn 138,000 acres.
Summit County heeded those visual cues. In 2006, the county adopted a community wildfire protection plan. A wildlife council continues to meet regularly. In 2008, voters approved property tax assessments that yield $500,000 a year for grants to assist neighborhoods and homeowners’ associations. The money can also be used to create water cisterns, to assist firefighters. A portable wood-chipper was purchased with the money, and it is taken to every street in the county at least twice a year.
Insurance companies have also pushed for efforts to provide what is called defensible space, by removing vegetation around homes. In some instances insurance companies are asking homeowners to have their properties inspected by the local fire districts.
“We used to require people to preserve trees and use them to screen development as much as possible,” says Jim Curnutte, the county planning director. “We would not let you cut down a tree. Now, we might require you to cut down a tree, because of the defensible space ordinance of the building code. If you come in for a new permit or a substantial remodel, you have to meet your defensible space requirements.”
Vegetation must be at least 30 feet from a structure and in some cases 100 feet. But under Colorado law, statutory-rule town and county governments cannot impose defensive space requirements retroactively; only home-rule governments such as Breckenridge and Pitkin County can.
Social license to cut trees
Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who is also a wildland firefighter, says that all planning now assumes fires will occur. “It’s not a matter of if but rather of when we have more fires in our community,” he says.
As a firefighter, he has worked in California and elsewhere. “I have seen homes with defensible space that were saved, and I have seen homes where vegetation is connected to houses, and those homes have been destroyed,” he says. It’s not an absolute, he adds, but he also knows that firefighters will spend more time trying to save a home with defensible space for a simple reason: they have improved chances of success.
Educating homeowners about wildfire risk is important, but Gibbs say there’s often a difference in attitudes between locals and those who are second-home owners. The non-residents more generally resist efforts to impose defensible space around buildings.
In Summit County, the beetle epidemic gave the Forest Service social license to cut trees from 12,000 to 15,000 acres.
“What chance do you think there was of doing that before the bark beetle?” Fitzwilliams asks.
The Forest Service has spent $18 million in the last 10 to 12 years in forest thinning, clearing roads and trails and other work related to removing vegetation in Summit County. Some has been sold to sawmills, but there’s little revenue from that. “We have low value trees,” explains Fitzwilliams of lodgepole pine.
Denver Water has been a major partner in this new work. It collects water for diversion to the Denver metropolitan area from a tunnel at Dillon Reservoir; the agency provides water for 1.4 million people, a quarter of all Colorado residents. The water agency has found forest fires expensive. Two hot-burning fires, in 1996 and then in 2002, caused heavy erosion into Denver’s reservoirs in the foothills southwest of the city. The soils there are highly erosive and granitic by nature. The reservoirs had to be dredged, with incomplete success.
Better and less expensive than remediation, the agency decided, would be prevention.
In a program called Forest to Faucets, Denver in 2010 partnered with state and federal forestry agencies to thin forests in Summit County and the Winter Park area. The city draws water from both areas.
Fires sop up Forest Service budget
Denver Water in February announced a five-year renewal of the partnership, putting in $16.5 million to match like amounts from the state and federal agencies for continuing thinning of forests. The first phase also saw 750,000 trees being planted.
In announcing the commitment, Denver Water’s CEO Jim Lochhead said Congress should take heed of what Denver and other water providers, including Aurora and Colorado Springs are doing.Instead of allocating massive amounts of money
for putting out fires, he said, Congress should provide more money to the Forest Service for forest management in critical areas.
That same point was made by Fitzwilliams, the White River supervisor, in an August meeting with officials from Colorado ski towns. He said fire suppression used to account for 15 percent of the Forest Service budget nationally, but has grown to 55 percent. This year it will probably push 60 percent. “So much of our money is in managing these large, expensive wildfires,“ he says.
Ironically, fire suppression in the past is partly to blame for the growing threat. In recent decades, foresters have taken a more measured approach about when to let fires burn and when to put them out.
But if cutting trees is one obvious solution to the threat of fires, ecologists warn it cannot be the only answer: There are simply too many trees.
“Treatments in and of themselves are not going to save the day in terms of changing patterns of fire,” says Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont. Treatments do make sense in targeted areas, such as what Denver Water is doing, he adds. But like Fitzwilliams, he stresses that fire altogether cannot be contained. It’s part of the ecosystem. Instead, communities need to adapt themselves to living within a fire ecosystem, he says. His consultancy, working with two others, helped Summit County create its community plan.
Speaking with members of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns in August, Fitzwilliams emphasized the words “conversations” and “responsibilities” among communities, land managers, and local governments. He thinks many tools— including prescribed fire and thinning—must be employed. He hopes to see greater age diversity in trees stands and some deliberate manipulation of forests in the wildland-urban interface to promote species such as aspen, which are somewhat less fire prone.
And warming temperatures
All this will be needed, if a trend noticed by Brad Piehl at the Peak 2 fire becomes more prevalent. He’s a watershed planner whose company, JW Associates, works with Denver, Colorado Springs, and other cities that draw water from high mountain valleys. Piehl himself lives near Breckenridge and watched the Peak 2 fire from his home with this important characteristic: It started in lodgepole pine and, after continuing to warm up on the downed logs, then invaded spruce-fir. This is a changed dynamic, previously observed last year in Colorado’s North Park. It also puts high-mountain resorts at greater risk.
Piehl, in speaking with Colorado Association of Ski Town members in August, also showed a slide (above) that represents the changing species that may result from warmer temperatures predicted as a result of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions.
Fire season is lengthening, some say by 75 days. That seems too much for Summit County, says Piehl. But even if it’s just 30 days more each year, “we’re still in trouble,” he adds. “That’s still a significant change.”
About Allen Best
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.