Doug Laraby watches the giant mechanical claw of a feller-buncher snip dead trees on the backside of Colorado’s Winter Park Resort. It’s summer, and loggers are removing lodgepole pines killed by the mountain pine beetle infestation that is sweeping the West. The trees are being cut to reduce fire danger and possible injuries from falling timber. Suddenly, with a loud crack, a wind gust topples a tree 20 feet away from Laraby, Winter Park’s director of planning. “Gotta watch out for those leaners,” he says.
Laraby has good reason to be alert. Dead or dying trees cover a quarter of Winter Park’s 4,000 acres, and the resort has spent about $1 million since 2004 on tree removal. As the beetle outbreak spreads through North America’s vast lodgepole forests—which extend up the spine of the Rockies from Colorado to British Columbia—the roar of heavy logging equipment will reverberate through the mountains for years to come. “There is no magic spray to stop the epidemic,” says the U.S. Forest Service’s Roger Poirier, winter sports program manager for Colorado’s 2.3 million acre White River National Forest, which is home to a dozen ski resorts. “When the beetles run out of food, they will die.”
Infested trees first turn red, then whither to gray as needles drop, producing a landscape of jagged toothpicks. Dead trees left uncut will eventually fall, toppled by wind, snow and other natural forces. A Colorado man died in 2008 after being crushed by a dead lodgepole—one of the first documented fatalities linked to the beetle outbreak. “It’s a spooky forest right now,” says Winter Park town forester Stefan Petersen.
The Forest Service is working with Vail, Steamboat and others to map and remove “hazard trees.” The cutting will happen over time. “There isn’t enough money to remove all the mortality at one time,” says Ken Kowynia, the U.S. Forest Service’s winter sports program manager for the Rocky Mountain region.
Mountain towns are spending heavily to remove trees. Vail alone has spent $750,000. Breckenridge and other communities have adopted ordinances that require property owners to cut dead trees on their land. “It’s very emotional,” says Breckenridge Mayor John Warner.
Winter Park resident Andy Chasin has cut 400 lodgepoles from his property. “I’ve become more of a logger than I ever imagined.” The upside? Lots of free firewood. In some communities it’s impossible to give away a cord. Fire remains the big worry. “It’s not a question of if it will burn,” says Vail wildlands fire coordinator Tom Talbot, “but when.”
The culprit is Dendroctonus ponderosae, a speck of an insect that’s changing the West. “There’s one of the little buggers,” says Forest Service ranger Mike Ricketts, extracting a black dot from an infested lodgepole with his pen knife.
Mountain pine beetles are native to North America, and scientists have documented beetle kills dating back 10,000 years. So why did this outbreak grow into the biggest forest die-off in U.S. history? A decade-long drought, combined with forest-fire suppression and clear-cutting a century ago, has produced an old, sickly forest. Also, milder temperatures brought on by global warming have allowed more beetles to survive mountain winters. The result is a pine beetle pandemic sweeping through high country forests.
How will this affect skiing? The predictions, perhaps surprisingly, are mixed. “There are places where it will enhance the skiing by opening up areas, while other areas may have to be closed,” Laraby says. Researchers are investigating possible impacts on the snowpack. Loss of the forest canopy means “there will be more snow on the ground,” says Fei Chen of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. But the resulting loss of shade will trigger an earlier spring melt, most researchers agree. North-facing slopes will remain the best places to find powder long after a storm because these areas contain spruce and fir trees, which beetles tend to ignore. South-facing slopes, where lodgepole thrive, could be snowier than ever just after a storm due to fewer treetops intercepting snow.
But fewer trees means fewer wind breaks, which will increase snow drift and, perhaps, snowmaking. Trees also buffer ski lifts, so there might be more wind closures. Eldora ski area near
Boulder, Colo., is spraying insecticide to protect trees near its lifts. “It’s an all-out battle,” says marketing director Rob Linde. At the cost of $50 or more per tree, large-scale spraying is impractical.
Trees also help anchor snow to the slopes. “You could have a window of increased avalanches after the dead trees fall and before new ones grow,” says Brian Lazar of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.
Researchers view the massive beetle kill as a natural progression in the life-cycle of timberland. “Nobody can predict exactly what will happen,” Kowynia says, “but one thing I’m sure of, and you can put this in big bold letters: It will be a healthier forest.” Scientists see lodgepole-dominant forests as biological deserts.
As lodgepoles die, other species will move in. Meadows will form, bringing birds, deer and elk. Aspen stands—the leafy oases of the Rockies—will expand. While other perils await the forest due to climate change, the lodgepoles will return.
Unbeknownst to most Colorado skiers, pine beetles ravaged Summit County in the early 1980s. Twenty-five years later, the kill zones are covered in young trees. Yellowstone National Park provides another example. Two decades after massive fires, the burn sections are among the park’s most verdant. Some of Colorado’s beetle-kill areas are already sprouting. “We are seeing amazing response in the growth of the understory,” says Kelly Elder, a hydrologist with the Forest
Service, “since the young trees are now competing less with the mature crown trees for light, nutrients and water.”
Doug Allen, director of mountain operations at Steamboat, has watched an aspen glade form in an area his resort cleared of dead lodgepoles several years ago. “Witnessing a forest regenerate is a beautiful thing to behold,” he says.
A beetle outbreak in the mid-1990s deforested about a quarter of Utah’s Brian Head resort. “It was devastating,” says general manager Henry Hornberger. Now, juvenile spruces cover the former clear-cuts. “Visitors today would not even know there was a huge beetle kill here,” he says. “It has faded from memory.”