By Bill Tiedje
Faced with the continued expansion of bark beetle and aspen decline on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing to adapt its forest management and timber sale procedures to keep pace with the rapid tree loss.
A USFS field trip to the Lagarita Timber Sale east of Lake City on Sept. 4 demonstrated the need for a new approach.
Approved in 2012, nearly all of the trees in the 5,550 acre project have already died before any logging has occurred, depleting the trees' lumber value and now serving as host to millions of spruce bark beetles within flying range of Lake City.
USFS Forester Johanna Nosal said, "Everything over three inches, I'm seeing 99 percent mortality."
USFS Entomologist Roy Mask explained the spruce beetle, which introduces a deadly fungus into affected trees, lives deep under the trees' bark where it can easily survive most winter conditions.
A side effect of the massive die-off, USFS Timber Management Assistant Drew Stroberg said the water table in the project area had already come up as the dead trees used less water.
Under the proposed alternative, the USFS would facilitate commercial harvest treatments of 4,000-6,000 acres of aspen, spruce and mixed stands annually over a 10-year period.
Taking place outside of all wilderness and roadless areas, these annual treatments would occur within a predetermined 575,567-acre swath of the forest through commercial and non-commercial treatments (occurring on slopes of less than 40 percent) or prescribed burns.
In Ouray County, this treatment area would likely occur on the Uncompahgre Plateau in the northwest corner of the county, as previously reported in the Plaindealer.
The three other alternatives include a no action alternative, a treatment focused only near urban areas and a salvage-only treatment without treatments near cities.
The USFS issued a National Environmental Policy Act Notice of Intent on this project in July 2013, known as the Spruce Beetle Epidemic and Aspen Decline Management Response project, and a draft Environmental Impact Statement is expected later this year.
SBEADMR Team Leader Clay Speas explained, "We need to be nimble. We need to be responsive."
The USFS estimates that the spruce beetle has affected 250,000 acres of the 3.2 million acre GMUG forest.
"Through the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic, everybody was asking the same questions," Forest Supervisor Scott Armentrout said. "What we're really facing is a natural process exacerbated by all the droughts we've had."
In 2004, foresters in the San Juan National Forest first noticed the signs of Sudden Aspen Decline, the landscape scale dieback and mortality of aspen, following a record setting drought in 2002.
Although SAD stopped spreading in 2009, it affected about 1.3 million acres in the Southern Rockies ecoregion and an estimated 230,000 acres of aspen in the GMUG forests, according to USFS Gunnison Service Center scientist Jim Worrall.
"Studies have shown that drought was the inciting agent for SAD," said Worrall.
He explained the physical characteristics of SAD are dead root systems and over-story mortality.
In addition to commercially accessible timber, the SPEADMR project will also focus on removing affected trees within one mile of communities in an area known as wildland urban interface.
In these areas, the USFS will remove hazard trees that could fall on roads and may also treat areas of above 40 percent slopes.
The fire danger of these dead forests is increased although not imminent, according to USFS Gunnison Fire Management Officer Pat Medina.
Medina said the fire risk decreased after the dead trees lost their needles.
Medina explained the high amount of fuel loading from fallen dead trees could create very intense fire conditions; however, it may be decades before the required conditions occur to cause such a fire.
After a spruce beetle epidemic hit the Flat Tops Range in White River National Forest in 1941, the affected trees were not burned until the Big Fish Fire in 2002, Medina explained.
Despite the prolonged history of beetle outbreaks throughout Colorado's history, Worrall said, the state is now facing new impacts from the effects of climate change.
Citing the 2008 Climate Change in Colorado report prepared by the University of Colorado for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Worrall said average temperatures in the state are predicted to rise by four degrees.
"Four to five degrees doesn't sound like a lot, but it's completely outside the normal range," Worrall said.
As a result of this hotter, drier climate, Worrall said, models showed the eventual loss of all Engelmann spruce and a significant portion of aspen stands on the Uncompahgre Plateau by 2060.
Worrall said changing species and more open forests are to be expected in coming years.
The USFS is required in its Forest Plans to replant all timber harvests and also take into account other matters such as streams, wildlife and archeological sites.
However, with changing landscapes and climate conditions, the USFS may consider planting more drought-resistant tree species like Douglas fir in addition to historical tree species.
Ouray County Weed Manager Ron Mabry was among the 60 participants who attended the USFS field trip on Thursday.
Mabry commented, "Fortunately, well, there isn't anything fortunate about it. It's drastically going to change our landscapes."