COLORADO SPRINGS (AP) – Faced with thousands of dead, standing trees killed by spruce beetles, Monarch Mountain is undergoing its most extensive forest management project to date.
Alongside the Pikes & San Isabel National Forest, Monarch Mountain will identify and cull infected spruce trees across 400 acres, 120 of which will be treated before the ski season. The rest will be addressed over the next four years.
“It’s our turn,” Jim Pitts, Pike & San Isabel National’s Salida District ranger, said last week. “All the ski areas in the state either have gone through it, will go through it or are going through it. (Beetle kill) is an epidemic.”
Spruce beetles reached the Monarch area en masse in 2012, carried north by the wind from the Weminuche Wilderness. They landed in the San Isabel National Forest, which was weakened by persistent drought and fire suppression. The beetles bored through the bark of its hosts, encircling the bark and killing the trees.
The needles of the doomed trees turn a pale yellowish-green color, with resin streaking down their trunks, which become spotted with exit holes. Many toppled like dominoes and left areas almost impassable by foot.
Those still standing threaten recreationists, Forest Service and Monarch employees, and infrastructure, including U.S. 50 and two major transmission lines running over the pass.
In terms of forest health, the homogeneity of the age class of the trees allowed the spruce beetle to run rapidly along the Continental Divide. New trees and vegetation struggle to navigate through the few nooks and crannies left by the tangle of down trees, impeding regrowth.
Changing the dynamics of the ages and species of trees by thinning will help the resiliency of the forest as well as a reduction in fuel loading.
“On one hand, it is a drop in the bucket, but it goes back to strategy,” Pitts said. “Dollarwise, there is no way that we can treat every acre that is out there, but if we’re smart about it and are strategic about which acres we choose, then we can break up the landscape so that it’s not continuous.”
Like much of forest management, thinning is not equivalent to clear-cutting, even though 75 percent of the trees in the area are infected.
Armed with a feller buncher, the owner of Salida’s CRS Timber Products, Shawn Cheeseman, can target a single tree, pluck it out of the ground and remove it from its cluster without knocking over its neighbors. Such an ultra-selective harvesting method extends his team’s work from a week to more than a month.
“It’s a careful and meticulous process, especially with the challenge of having to work around green trees and infrastructure,” he said. “Throw in 60-degree slopes, and it’s a slow process.”
It’s necessary, though, if the ski resort is to retain any of its trees as well as the variety of ski runs they create.
“The thinning will actually open up more terrain for tree skiing,” said Scott Pressly, vice president of mountain operations at Monarch. “There are areas that I could dip into during the midwinter with a lot of snow but would still be ducking under trees. Now, there will be areas that I’ve never skied before that will be open.
He added, “Put a blanket of white on the tree islands, and we think it’ll look really good.”
With the labor, machinery, transportation and other costs, the project is in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” a distressing figure for one of seven remaining independent ski resorts in the state, said Randy Stroud, the mountains general manager and chief operating officer.
“We’re just little Monarch Mountain, and we don’t have the real estate or hotels that can help us absorb those costs as easily,” Stroud said. “We have our fingers crossed that we’ll find another avenue to help pay for this.”
About 60 percent of this season’s salvageable trees can be sold to lumber mills in Salida and Montrose, subsidizing some of the cost to Monarch. But over the following four years of the project, that percentage will drop, incrementally boosting the cost of thinning to the ski area.
Yet, as leasees of land, Monarch employees feel an obligation to treat the land as if was their own.
“As a ski area operation, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the land while we’re here,” Pressly said.
Said Stroud, “We love Monarch, and are Monarch people, so we take pride in our ski area.”