Dead or dying trees along U.S. Highway 550 north – rust-colored stains on an otherwise verdant landscape – are telling Matt Janowiak something he doesn’t want to hear – bark beetles are at work.
Janowiak, the U.S. Forest Service’s Columbine District ranger, last week in the Cascade Creek drainage unveiled a plan to forestall an invasion of voracious beetles similar to the beetle attacks on the eastern side of the San Juan National Forest.
Listening were a dozen members from the Cascade Summer Home Group – 20 families, some of whom have owned cabins in the canyon since the 1940s. The cabins could be imperiled by a wildfire in the hills overgrown with a variety of vegetation or from the collapse of dead trees.
Janowiak referenced the West Fork Complex fires that ripped through 109,615 acres of largely beetle-killed spruce in the forests between Pagosa Springs and Creede this summer and the beetle-kill that is advancing relentlessly 1½ to 2 miles a year in the Pine River drainage.
“Those beetles are marching this way,” Janowiak said. “But we have several years before they arrive. We have time to act, to be proactive.”
The proposed solution is to sell timber on 70 acres to remove about 30 percent of large trees – two species of spruce, some sub-alpine fir and aspen. Once free of encumbrances, the forest can heal itself, Janowiak said.
Several factors were considered, he said. The value of the cabins and a wooden flume that carries water diverted from Cascade Creek to Electra Lake a few miles away was important, he said.
Another factor, Janowiak said, is that the sale of 70 acres requires a less detailed review under the National Environmental Policy Act and saves time. A sale, in comparison to removing hazard trees quickly after a disaster, takes the pressure off the Forest Service, he said.
Thinning 70 acres by removing giant conifers would create a healthier forest and leave spruce smaller than 4 inches in diameter at chest height to rejuvenate the forest over time. Spruce smaller than 4 inches won’t sustain beetles, which bore through the bark to the inner cambium layer where they lay eggs.
Cabin owners in the canyon built their getaways under the now-defunct Recreation Residence Program approved by Congress in the 1930s. The legislation allowed people to build cabins intended for occasional occupancy year-round but not permanent residency. The builder owns the structure, but leases the property from the Forest Service.
If it snows heavily, Cascade Creek cabin owners have to leave their vehicles at Highway 550 and ski or snowshoe to their cabin. But they cherish their cabins despite lack of year-round road access.
They questioned Janowiak and his colleagues, Gretchen Fitzgerald and Cam Hooley, at length during an exploratory hike to get the lay of the land, where some beetle activity was noted.
“I took down 13 beetle-killed trees this past winter,” said Rick Everett, whose grandfather in the 1940s built the cabin he occupies and for whom a street in Bodo Industrial Park was named.
Pat Yeager Emmett joined the conversation to say three generations of her family have been in the canyon since 1912, when patriarch Bob Yeager helped rebuild the flume, which had been washed out.
Yeager’s father, Dick, one of nine offspring, in 1950 built the cabin she leases.
“I’m happy to see the Forest Service is proactive about beetle kill,” Yeager said later. “We’ve had to take out dead trees, including my favorite, which was a big part of our privacy.”
Yeager also is concerned about increased day hiking and camping in the canyon, which has attracted some irresponsible visitors. It wasn’t unusual to see campfires between the cluster of cabins and Highway 550 during the height of the drought-induced fire ban this summer, she said.
Beetles already have made inroads across the 1.9 million-acre San Juan National Forest. The agency’s 2012 aerial survey to detect levels of tree damage found 39,000 acres in the forest were affected by the spruce beetle last year, bringing to 130,000 the total acres damaged by the species since 1996.
The West Fork Complex fires 90 miles east of here demonstrated what wildfire can do in stands of dead conifers – the victims of bark beetles and armalaria, a root disease. The three fires charred 109,615 acres as firefighters, hampered by steep terrain, couldn’t use mechanized equipment.
The timber sale is only a proposal at the moment, Fitzgerald said.
The sequence of events, she said, would begin with a formal proposal put out for public comment. The package then would be reviewed as a project causing little impact that doesn’t require an environmental assessment or environmental impact study. Janowiak could sign off on the project.
The federal Fish and Wildlife Service would be consulted because the Cascade drainage is habitat for the threatened Canada lynx, Fitzgerald said.
The NEPA process takes about a year and would be followed by advertising for bids on logging. Janowiak expects a single contract, with the first logging occurring probably in 2015.
The contract would require the last tree to come down within a set period because of the urgency of the situation.
Janowiak said there would be larger timber sales in the future. It makes sense to let private enterprise do the job instead of billing the public for work done by the government, he said.