P – Pine Beetle

There have been a myriad of articles concerning the pine beetle epidemic that is literally wiping out millions of lodgepole pines throughout the North American Rocky Mountain regions, and the impact this is having on our forest and eco-structure. Basically, this is an unstoppable epidemic that will change the existing landscape for generations to come. This state of being is a combination of a number of factors:

  • Dense stands of lodgepole pines nearing the end of their century-plus life cycle
  • A century of fire suppression which has created abnormally thick and uniform forests
  • A decade of drought which has weakened the tree’s natural defenses

The consequence is that the trees are highly susceptible to the rice-sized flying beetles which tunnel into the bark and lay thousands of eggs. Moreover, for every 1 tree that gets “infected”, 10 trees (or more) can be attacked the following year. Thus the compound effect is catastrophic. About 4.8 million lodgepoles were killed this year. This compound ratio suggests 48 million will be killed next year. According to Brendon Irving of Winter Park Resort, “the beetle will keep going until it got the last of its food source, the last possible tree”.

Attempts to fight this epidemic are – to all intents and purposes – futile. There is no practical way to stop a large-scale mountain pine beetle epidemic once it has begun. Spraying is extremely costly and environmentally unfriendly. Widespread removal of infested green trees is also costly, and only scratches the surface. Only clear-cutting large swaths of forest to stimulate new growth and forest diversity might have the desired effect, but again this has to be done on an enormous scale. Ultimately, over the next two decades, the beetle-killed trees will shed their needles and their branches, then fall down and contribute to a tremendous load of fuel on the forest floor. At that point, it’s only a matter of time when the combination of fuel, weather and a spark set off a fire on a catastrophic scale.

Senator Ken Salazar suggested that this wildfire threat could be the “Katrina of the West”. The biggest issue might not be dealing with the natural process, but with social impacts. Mountain communities will have their residences and second home real estate investments at risk. Tourism will be impacted in a very major way, and this leads us into the impact on skiing, terrain and snow.

As a result of fire, and/or widespread cutting, the on-mountain skiing experience will be completely different. Tree skiing may soon be a thing of the past. Moreover, “above tree-lined skiing” may now start at the base of the mountain instead of higher up. This will have an impact on visibility, trails will be more affected by wind, and all-in-all, something more akin to the European skiing experience might prevail. With fewer trees though, more of the mountain might be skiable, which is perhaps the only upside to come out of all of this.

According to U.S. Forest Service agent Any Cadenhead, “we’re talking about a dramatically changed landscape. People have their own images of what this change might be, but I think that, almost without fail, people are surprised at how much bigger this thing is than what they expect”.

I would be interested to hear what others have to say about this, especially the impact on our economy, and the implications for those who currently reside in this valley.