By Samantha Wright | Ouray
Dead, red forests are painful to look at and kind of scary to live next to (or within). Just ask anyone in Ouray – the picturesque tourist town in southwestern Colorado known as the “Gem of the Rockies” – that sits within a crucible of dead and dying beetle-ridden trees.
What started as a few dead trees here and there has morphed over the past three years into a beetle epidemic, leaving thousands of dead trees in its wake. But as hopeless as it seems, experts predict that the devastation may ultimately help the forests around Ouray become healthier and more resilient in the long run, by helping them return to their natural state of greater tree species diversity.
Ouray’s beetle kill onslaught began several years ago, as drought-stressed white fir trees, the predominant evergreen species in the Upper Uncompahgre River Valley within which Ouray nestles, began succumbing to swarms of fir engraver beetles that were thriving in a warming climate.
Recent aerial detection surveys conducted by the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado State Forest Service show vast blobs of white fir beetle-kill all around Ouray. Those blobs have grown significantly over the past two years since the last time such surveys were conducted. The USFS pegs the current mortality rate at about 50 percent and predicts that when all is said and done, most of the white fir trees around Ouray will be dead.
“In terms of the time frame, it’s probably going to be another 10 years we will be watching trees die,” Ouray District Ranger Tammy Randall-Parker told a large crowd of concerned residents at a June 29 multiagency outreach meeting in Ouray. “And we anticipate 90 percent kill.”
While individual trees can be sprayed – at considerable expense – to protect them from fir engraver beetle infestation, entomologists agree that barring a weeks-long winter deep-freeze (which could kill beetle larvae as they develop in the cambium layer of the tree between the wood and the bark), nothing can be done to stop the infestation.
A Treatment Plan Unveiled
As locals adjust to this painful prognosis, the Colorado State Forest Service is working with the City of Ouray and Ouray County to treat two areas of beetle-killed forest near town this fall. The project has multiple goals: protecting the public from having dead trees fall on them; mitigating wildfire hazard while rusty-red needles still cling to the trees’ branches; and ultimately, encouraging a more species-diverse and fire-resistant future forest.
The project is state-funded through a $20,000 Healthy Forests Vibrant Communities Pilot Grant that was awarded in June. It calls for six acres of immediate “treatments” (forester lingo for cutting down trees) on city land near the USFS-operated Amphitheater Campground as well as within the Ouray Ice Park, where there are urgent concerns about public safety.
“There are people actually roping off to dead trees and trees with root rot, weakened to the point where wind can easily blow them over,” Colorado State Forest Service District Forester Jodi Rist said at the recent meeting in Ouray.
In both project areas, “sanitation cuts” will remove all beetle-infested white fir, leaving behind a more open stand of healthy “legacy trees,” among which a new generation of mixed tree species such as aspen, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir will eventually be planted.
Cuts will be made the old-fashioned way – with chain saws and skidders – by Colona sawmill operator Collin Justman, who will process any logs that retain economic value. Montrose-based contractor Shad Comer of Camouflage Cutters will chip the leftover slash left on the forest floor, and pile that which is not accessible with a chipper. The Colorado Division of Fire Protection and Control, in cooperation with the Ouray Volunteer Fire Department, will then burn the remaining piles.
The grant will also fund additional project area reconnaissance by the CSFS on over 40 acres around Ouray – mostly on city and county land – where fire hazard and public safety concerns are high. But as far as treatments go, many of these zones are “pie in the sky,” Rist said.
“They are in areas that are so steep and inaccessible that we may not even be able to do anything, at least in terms of reducing hazards to the public,” she said. “Unless somebody has a lot of money and wants to make a huge donation for helicopter logging, there is no way to get a lot of this stuff out and deal with it, for the benefit you are going to get.”
The problem is that, from the timber industry’s perspective, white fir trees are not worth much, even when they are healthy. Once dead, they rot quickly on the stump and are beyond salvaging within a year or two. Thus, the economic incentive for helicopter logging around Ouray is nonexistent, Rist said. It could also pose significant dangers, Randall-Parker added – not just for those who are doing the work, but also for the town below.
Eyesore, or Wildfire Hazard?
Aside from the aesthetic affront and potential economic ramifications of having beetle-kill in their backyards, many local Ouray residents worry most about the elevated wildfire risk posed by the tinder-dry dead trees that ring the town.
“You say we can’t log here because it’s too steep – we are wondering why we can’t just cut down the trees?” said one Ouray resident, offering to go out with his chainsaw and “drop the trees now so they don’t burn later.”
While that might relieve the eyesore, it would not reduce short-term wildfire danger, said U.S. Forest Service West Zone Assistant Fire Manager Thad Chavez. Rather, it would simply shift the fuel load to the forest floor.
Current science is inconclusive on whether standing dead trees that have been freshly killed by beetles are more wildfire prone than drought-stressed green ones. But most experts agree that once the dead trees drop their needles (which in the case of white fir trees, takes about four years), the fire danger plummets.
“The best thing to do is allow the trees to defoliate, and that will decrease fire behavior,” Chavez said. “If you start putting fuel on the ground you still get problems with fire.”
Regional wildfire experts attending a beetle-kill meeting in Ouray last spring concluded that even if wildfires do ignite in standing dead forests around Ouray, the intermittent cliff bands surrounding town would serve as fire breaks and prevent the fire from becoming a town-engulfing inferno.
Norm Birtcher of Montrose Forest Products, playing devil’s advocate, said he “seriously questions” the theory that once the needles fall off the white fir, the fire danger would be significantly reduced, and argued that it is difficult to accurately predict fire behavior in the Ouray bowl.
“You could have a couple of different scenarios,” he said. “In my wildfire fighting days, you could see tornadoes of fire come out of the canyons and go hundreds of feet in the air, and spotting out ahead. I question blanket statements. I think there are a lot of unknowns.”
Forest Diversity Is the Silver Lining
Randall-Parker offered a ray of hope amidst the doom and gloom, pointing out that the local forests around Ouray are actually quite diverse, and boast a variety of species in addition to the predominant white fir, including ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, southwest white pine, aspen, oak brush and Rocky Mountain juniper.
While the white fir will die off, “It’s not going to be a completely dead forest,” she said – such as can be seen on the Rio Grande National Forest or on Colorado’s Front Range, where vast monoculture stands of Englemann spruce and lodgepole pine have been utterly ravaged by beetles.
“Part of the problems we are looking at today have their roots in choices that were made in the past,” Randall-Parker added, referring to USFS entomologist Tom Eager’s hypothesis that early miners in Ouray’s boomtown days selectively harvested sturdy native species such as ponderosa pine and Douglas fir to use as mining timbers, leaving only the white fir behind.
With less competition and active fire suppression over the ensuing years, the white fir grew more and more thickly in the Ouray bowl, ultimately making the stands more vulnerable to beetle infestation.
Randall-Parker emphasized that active forest management could play an important role in restoring balance to the forests around Ouray, post beetle apocalypse.
“The good news is, and the future for us could be, recommending to do planting of ponderosa pine and other species in the Ouray bowl so we don’t have the same scenario for future generations,” Randall-Parker said. “We have an opportunity to make a difference by trying to bring ponderosa pine back.”
And someday, she suggested, “It may be possible to have some small fires in here to keep the system more natural.”
Local Tree Health Resources at a Glance:
PRIVATE LAND FOREST MANAGEMENT ASSISTANCE OR SICK TREE IDENTIFICATION
Montrose District Forester
Colorado State Forest Service
GENERAL INFORMATION ON LOCAL FEDERAL LAND FOREST MANAGEMENT
US Forest Service
US Forest Service
WILDFIRE MITIGATION EDUCATION/COST SHARE ASSISTANCE/COUNTY WILDFIRE PROTECTION PLANS AND/OR INDIVIDUAL HOME RISK RATINGS
Mitigation and Education Coordinator
West Region Wildfire Council
Lilia Falk, Director
West Region Wilfire Council
ASSISTANCE SPRAYING WHITE FIR TREES TO PREVENT WHITE FIR ENGRAVER ATTACK
Montrose Landscape Consulting and Spraying
High Country Turf Care
ASSISTANCE CUTTING DOWN LARGE, DEAD, HAZARDOUS TREES
Telluride Arborist Services
Paul or Andy
P&A Tree Service
MCH BUBBLE CAPS FOR PURCHASE IN BULK OR SINGLY
True Value Hardware Store in Ouray
($2.50/cap as of March 2015)
[single caps (500mg) $2.09/ea
double-bubble caps (1000mg) $3.76/ea] 604-454-1122
(Source: Jodi Rist, Montrose District Forester, Colorado State Forest Service)
SOLUTIONS FOR PRIVATE PROPERTY OWNERS
As federal, state and local agencies hash out plans to address beetle-kill on the public lands around Ouray, many private landowners in the area are also struggling with the problem, and need help dealing with everything from finding out how to protect trees that are still living to getting rid of dead and dying ones, and protecting their homes from the threat of wildfire.
The Montrose District of the Colorado State Forest Service and the West Region Wildfire Council offer consulting services to help with such issues.
Protecting living trees:
Two main players infest fir trees in and around Ouray. The primary culprit is the fir engraver beetle, attacking white fir trees. But the Douglas fir beetle can also be a problem for the Douglas Fir trees specifically, which grow in the Ouray bowl, but are far less common.
Each beetle is endemic to the area and exceedingly species-specific; the fir engraver beetle (scolytus ventralis) attacks white fir trees almost exclusively, while the Douglas fir beetle (dentdroctonus pseudotsugae) specializes in the Douglas fir tree.
Different methods are required to protect these two species. On an individual basis, preventive trunk spraying is the only proven way to protect white fir trees from infestation. The USFS has found three chemicals to be effective: carbaryl, permethrin and bifenthrin. Trees should be sprayed at least once a year, ideally in the late spring or early summer before beetles fly out of their old host trees in search of new ones.
While the beetles are currently swarming, Rist said, it’s not too late in the game to have trees sprayed this summer.
Costs associated with treatments vary with ease of access and the size of the tree, but typically range from $30 for a small tree to $60 for a large one, said Linda Corwine, whose Montrose Landscape Consulting and Spraying business treats trees in the area. For large treatment areas, Corwine charges by the gallon of insecticide rather than by the tree.
Douglas fir can be protected by using inexpensive anti-aggregate MCH pheromone “bubble caps” that can be attached to individual trees or around the perimeter of a property, tricking Douglas fir beetles into thinking trees are already infected and there is no more room to raise another brood. MCH bubble caps are sold locally at True Value Ouray Hardware and Mercantile. There is no known anti-aggregate pheromone that will repel the fir engraver beetle.
Defensible Space Grant Program:
A cost share program administered by the Colorado State Forest Service is available to people living in Ouray’s “WUI” (Wildland Urban Interface) who want to create defensible space around their home. The program reimburses landowners for up to 75 percent of the cost they incur to mitigate fire danger on their property.
- How it works: West Region Wildfire Council personnel and State Forest Service personnel conduct a site visit to develop a mitigation plan and project map, showing in detail where the work would occur, right down to which trees should be cut. The property owner then secures a contractor to execute the plan, and applies for the cost share funds through the West Region Wildfire Council if they feel they need them. The exact amount the landowner will be reimbursed is determined before work begins. Property owners must pay the contractor up front, and get reimbursed up to 75 percent of the total cost once the West Region Wildfire Council deems the project to have been completed according to the pre-approved plan.
- What it costs: Treatments cost from $1,000 to $2,000 per acre, according to the size and accessibility of the trees, and steepness of terrain.
- How long it takes: The typical time frame to get the ball rolling is a couple of months. “If you sign up right now, we will get to your site by August,” said Jamie Gomez of the West Region Wildfire Council, who helps administer the program.
- Whom to call: Call the West Region Wildfire Council at 970/615-7300 to coordinate a site visit by a forester from the Colorado State Forest Service, and get plugged into the cost share assistance program.
Alternatives for slash disposal:
The Colorado Department of Public Safety’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control trains Colorado residents how to safely burn slash piles on their private property.
Locals are encouraged to attend an upcoming certified burner training program to be offered by DFPC in Ouray County, with a date to be announced in the near future.
Ouray County officials are also looking into the possibility of bringing in an air curtain burner so that slash can be burned locally in a centralized location under the direction of the Ouray Volunteer Fire Department.
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