It’s hard to miss the swaths of dead and dying trees in San Juan National Forest caused by beetles and other insects. And last summer’s West Fork Fire that started near the top of Wolf Creek Pass was a good example of how that dead fuel can accelerate a wildfire.
Congress decided to do something about it in the Farm Bill it passed in February. The bill included more than $45 million to begin collaborative efforts to mitigate the damage. On May 20, after requests from state governors, the Department of Agriculture announced that it had designated 94 national forests in 35 states as eligible for the funding. Both the San Juan and Rio Grande national forests in Southwest Colorado were among them.
What does that mean?
“We don’t know yet,” said Steve Hartvigsen, supervisory forester for the Pagosa and Columbine districts of San Juan National Forest. “We appreciate what Congress did, but there’s uncertainty as to how that will direct down to individual forests regarding dead and dying timber and hazardous trees. They spoke to landscape-scale work (across large areas of forest), but those are kind of in conflict.”
From 1996 to 2013, using aerial overflights, foresters have identified 183,000 acres out of the 1.8 million in the San Juan Forest that have been affected, but 100 percent of those identified acres have not yet been completely killed.
“People tend to characterize the spruce beetle spread as a lateral movement. That’s the gorilla in the room,” Hartvigsen said. “But it really hits the largest trees in the stand first, for survival reasons, because those trees have really thick bark that will protect them from the cold and predators. Those are about 5 to 7 percent of a stand and rise from 15 to 20 percent in height above the rest.”
The beetles, which have a two-year life cycle, then work their way down from the canopy.
The act excludes efforts in any wilderness areas, and roadless areas are too difficult to reach for any significant work. So, Hartvigsen said, current thoughts are on protecting areas around facilities, roads and trails as well as watersheds that supply communities.
The San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership has recommended two projects to be funded by the act. They went to Kent Grant with the Colorado Forest Service for him to pass up the chain. One would be in and around Wolf Creek Ski Area.
“It’s so important economically to the communities on both sides of the pass,” he said. “The other is on the west side of Pagosa Springs, in part because of the wildland-urban interface and also because there is so much risk to the watersheds that are a key source of water for Pagosa Springs. But there are other possibilities, as well.”
It might be possible to decrease the damage the beetles will do in the Mancos-Dolores area of the San Juan National Forest, he said, because they haven’t arrived there in force yet. They’re munching their way east to west.
“There’s an area about seven miles northeast of Pagosa where (Colorado Department of Transportation) is always repairing where the slump is falling from the highway,” Hartvigsen said. “With an Xcel (natural gas) pipeline, (La Plata Electric Association) line, a Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District water line and a federal highway with 160, there’s a lot to protect there.”
The Forest Service also has been talking to Durango Mountain Resort about thinning some of the spruce and fir around it in a long-term management program.
“It’s a critical economic player and provides tremendous service to the area,” he said, “We all know the funds coming through federal agencies are pretty tight these days. We’re trying to more tactically strategize where we’ll use them, looking at priority needs.”
In the end, the forests here are competing with those on the Front Range, so sheer population numbers may dictate where the bulk of the funds go, Hartvigsen said.