Monday, December 02, 2013

After the kill, Part 1: Beetle epidemic changed the face of High Country forests

If mountain residents hope to keep building their homes and towns along the wildland-urban interface, they must understand that sudden, drastic change is inevitable and prepare their own properties as best they can. And if Coloradans wish to continue reaping the benefits of forests, including recreation opportunities and a source of precious water in the arid West, they must take an active role in responding to disturbances and protecting the landscape. The pine beetle’s sweep in Colorado’s western mountains combined with the devastating Front Range wildfires of the last decade have captured the attention of individuals as well as federal, state and local governmental agencies. These disturbances have no regard for boundaries between public and private lands. In the new reality, all interests must work together through partnerships to respond to disaster and protect the landscape supporting lives and livelihoods. With the passage of the beetle tsunami, both eyes and views are opening to see another perspective of the epidemic. Numerous studies following the destructive 2002 Hayman fire and beetle onset have shown that the link between wildfires and beetle kill is dubious at best. In fact, beetle kill may be nature’s way of preventing massive fires. It helps thin lodgepole, which like to grow in dense stands. It reduces the amount of fuels in forest canopies when the pines die and drop their needles. “Pine beetles outbreaks are not an exotic thing that occurs, they’re part of the natural system,” said Craig Magwire, a district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service. He’s worked to mitigate the pine beetle fallout since the first signs of an epidemic in Grand County. But while pest outbreaks are normal, what makes the current epidemic unusual is its scope, wiping out virtually every mature lodgepole in western Colorado’s forested landscape. And while the link between wildfire danger and massive stands of insect-ravaged trees is still the subject of debate among scientists, the epidemics share a common cause. Colorado’s recent record-breaking wildfires and unprecedented beetle kill were both fueled by drought. Drought weakens trees’ natural pest defenses. And drought leads to dry conditions and dangerous fire risks. Colorado’s long dry spell through the 1990s and 2000s created a perfect storm for both insect outbreaks and wildfire conditions...more

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