The bark beetles are here.
Actually, the bark beetles that kill mountain trees are always around, San Juan National Forest representatives told a small group of Vallecito residents Tuesday evening. They answered questions and discussed options to make devastating infestations such as those on Wolf Creek Pass less likely in our area forests.
The assumption of the Tuesday meeting was that tree stands around Vallecito will be affected. "At this point, it's not immediately evident in many of the view sheds, but Wolf Creek Pass is the future," Columbine District Ranger Matt Janowiak said. He showed maps of the San Juan National Forest that already have beetle infestations and areas at risk of infestation. Those are dense high elevation stands of large mature Englemann spruce, especially when there is little diversity of species or age of trees.
There is a beetle-killed stand of Englemann spruce at the top of Middle Mountain Road in the Runlett Park area, said Gretchen Fitzgerald, a SJNF reforestration specialist.
Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick came here 15 months ago to take over the supervisor position.
"My first introduction was all the dead trees coming over Wolf Creek Pass," she said. "We really need to address this situation. ... We won't stop the beetles, but we can create resiliency, sell timber and use funds for reforestration."
Pretty much every mountain tree species has a beetle to attack it - spruce, fir, Ponderosa pines. And then there's armillaria, a disease that attacks tree roots, as well as spruce bud worm that eats the growing tips.
So are we facing a treeless future in the San Juan National Forest? Not necessarily.
Beetles are drawn to trees that are stressed by drought or over-crowding. So thinning is one way to make at-risk stands more resilient. Trees in good condition can sometimes push out beetles that try to bore in, before the beetles settle in under the bark and lay eggs. Fitzgerald said, "If a tree is infected, you can water it and it might sap the beetles out. They aren't necessarily doomed." But the tree might have other issues such as armillaria that weakened it and made it attractive to beetles.
It's the beetle larvae that do the damage, Travis Bruch said. They tunnel around the tree trunk as they feed, girdling the tree. They also carry fungus. The beetles survive winter in the doomed trees and emerge in the following year to look for new hosts.
Fitzgerald said the beetles send out pheromones that attract even more beetles. The cycle can be disrupted by winter cold enough to kill beetles under the bark of their large hosts or by a wet summer. The beetles don't go into tree trunks less than 4 inch diameter, "so we think the beetles are pretty much done on Wolf Creek," she said. There is still green under-story there for regeneration.
"It's where there's no under-story that's a concern," she said.
Chemical sprays won't protect trees that already have beetles under the bark, Fitzgerald said.
However, audience member Marty Millar argued that his company's natural products based on healthy soil micro-organisms can be sprayed on large forest areas to protect trees by making them healthier and able to fend for themselves. He said he is working with the Mountain Studies Institute (MSI) on a test project at Granite Peaks Ranch above Vallecito. He invited the Forest Service to join in.
Spraying can't be done over large areas, Bruch said.
Millar countered, "I can shoot 150 feet in the air. I can do 700 acres in a day from a helicopter. Cheaply. I can help stop what's coming," he asserted. "I've knocked on every Forest Service door. They aren't paying attention."
Janowiak said, "We'll take opportunities to collaborate with groups like MSI."
Brian White and Don Kelly talked about the impact on hiking trails. Because of budget and staff cuts, the Forest Service has to prioritize which trails will have hazard or deadfall trees removed, they said. The backlog for this work goes back to the Missionary Ridge fire in 2002. In the Weminuche Wilderness, this work must be done with crosscut saws.