Colorado Forests Die In Beetle's Wake

Sep 18, 2014

Spruce beetles have invaded the inner bark of this spruce tree in Hinsdale County, Colo.
Credit Laura Palmisano

Over the past decade a tiny insect has been causing a big problem in southwest Colorado. And it’s getting worse. The beetle is devouring mature spruce forests and turning them into expanses primed for wildfire. The U.S. Forest Service recently unveiled a broad new plan to try to minimize fire danger but not everyone thinks it’s the best path forward. KVNF’s Laura Palmisano reports.

The Issue

I’m standing in the forest outside of Lake City, the only town in Colorado’s Hinsdale County. The county is about the size of Rhode Island and 95 percent of the land here is federally owned. It’s thick with trees but almost all of them are dying.

Roy Mask is an entomologist — meaning he studies bugs — for the U.S. Forest Service.

“The genus is Dendroctonus,"  he says. "The species is rufipennis. That genus name means tree killer."

Mask is talking about spruce beetles.

Their habitat ranges from Alaska to Arizona. And, they're about the size of a grain of rice. These insects are feasting on Engelmann spruce here in Hinsdale County

Roy Mask, a Forest Service entomologist, examines bark from a spruce tree infested with beetles.
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF

“Here are some of the adult beetles," Mask says. "So you can see the female makes a gallery. She lays her eggs. The larvae radiate away from those egg galleries and they basically create a roadmap of feeding. This would normally be a living layer of the tree and so they are basically killing that living layer. We call it the inner bark."

These insects, which are native to the area, can destroy a healthy forest within three years. They can fly and also travel on windstorms where they rain down onto new trees.

Mask says spruce beetle populations are flourishing in Colorado because of warming temperatures and drought conditions.

"There are literally millions of acres in the West that are susceptible to beetles," he says. "And, we could talk about a number of different beetles not just spruce beetle. And so as we look across the vast landscapes and we look at their susceptibility…the likelihood of change and disturbance is there.”

The Plan

Federal officials in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests in southwest Colorado are proposing a 10-year project to try and get rid of a quarter million acres of dead spruce trees. In the same plan the Forest Service also wants to treat an additional 230,000 acres of aspen forests that experienced dieback from drought and fungus. Normally plans like this deal with small areas but because of the size of the problem they want to fight it on a large scale.

“We support [the Forest Service's] efforts having experienced two catastrophic wildfires in 2012 and 2013," Hinsdale County Commissioner Cindy Doizer says. "We see the damage that is happening because of spruce beetle kill."

A major Forest Service concern is trees falling onto roads and buildings or fueling wildfires. The proposal would allow for controlled burns to clear and revitalize dead stands, replanting, and timber contracts with logging companies to remove dead trees.

Doizer says she’s urging the Forest Service to act quickly because she thinks the county is a tinderbox waiting to be lit. 

Dying spruce trees line Slumgullion Pass along Highway 149 in Hinsdale County, Colo. The trees are infested with spruce beetles.
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF

  "A lot of these standing dead trees are lining major roads," she says. "To get into Lake City and get out of Lake City we have one way and that is Highway 149. We view it as a beginning of a fire break, but also as it’s an escape route if we were to have a fire."  

But some environmentalists like Hilary Cooper with the Sheep Mountain Alliance, a Telluride-based conservation group, don't agree with the scale of the plan.

“Our concern is that the recent science that’s coming out is saying that the more human management and human disturbance that is created in forests actually hurts the efforts of forests to regenerate themselves," Cooper says. "So we are trying to find a balance between the economic need to do some of these salvage projects to address public health and safety which we feel is very important and then backing them off some of the areas that we feel should be left to natural regeneration.”

The Forest Service has already held several public meetings to get feedback on its plan. Officials say a draft environmental impact statement on the project is set to be released this winter.

The Future

Back in the mountains above Lake City, Mask the Forest Service biologist says spruce beetles won't kill off all the trees.

"There will be young spruce out here even in a warming climate," he says. "It won't all disappear at one time. So I think people will get used to a much younger forest."

Mask says at this point spruce beetle populations have grown exponentially and will continue to spread. And all forest managers can do is try to plan ahead.