Bark beetles killing the forest
June 1, 2010
Western bark beetles may be only a quarter-inch long. But the insects are responsible for killing nearly 90 percent of the trees in large pockets of the Uinta Mountains east of Kamas.
From Soapstone to Christmas Meadows, the pests have fed on pines, leaving behind reddish-brown deadwood and extreme fire danger. With the hazard now threatening cabins in the forest, officials in Summit County are beginning to fight back.
"We’re in deep water," Summit County Councilman John Hanrahan said.
Due to the scope of the beetle epidemic, forest workers do not expect to stop the outbreak in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. So far they have been unable to contain the hungry beetles on the North Slope of the Uintas.
The main priority now is limiting the danger the dead trees pose to communities and important watersheds, according to retired U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Steve Ryberg.
"The beetle has already spread," said Dale Jablonski, northeast area manager for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. "There are a lot of bugs out there."
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Mountain pine beetles have ravaged more than 407,000 acres of land in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Hardest hit were areas in Summit County once flush with healthy lodgepole pines.
County councilpersons may spend about $15,000 for a chipping operation this summer to dispose of the dying trees taken from around cabins in areas where the fire danger is high.
"It’s to help reduce the risk to the county and to the homeowners," Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer said. "It is a great benefit We’ll have a better chance to stop a fire if it comes into the community."
Despite bark beetles being almost impossible to get rid of once they infest a tree, some officials say government cannot sit back and do nothing.
But just removing the deadwood near cabins will not prevent beetles from finishing off the remaining trees in the forest, Summit County Councilman David Ure said.
"It’s going to take something much more aggressive to try and get ahead of this beetle," Ure said. "This is the enemy."
The Forest Service has tried to use timber sales to remove the dead and dying trees.
But the number of sales has decreased over the years, Ryberg said.
Summit County Councilman Chris Robinson asked if money could be earned selling dying trees that are harvested from the forest.
"The price of timber has been skyrocketing the last 30 or 40 days," Summit County Councilman David Ure said.
However, not enough timber is being used to make even a dent in the deadwood.
"It’s still a drop-in-the-bucket operation," Robinson said. "It’s tokenism."
County Councilwoman Sally Elliott questioned how much cutting down the trees impacts the beetle epidemic.
"We’re kind of damned if we do and damned if we don’t," Elliott said. "What is the effect of harvesting trees on the pine bark beetle?"
A wildfire in the dead forest could spread like an inferno so officials are designing fire breaks and educating cabin owners about clearing brush from around their homes to establish defensible space.
"We’re going to keep working with homeowners, and that won’t stop," Jablonski said.
Meanwhile, officials also worry the beetle epidemic could take a bite out of tourism revenue by discouraging a number of regular forest visitors.
"Their primary recreation opportunity is scenic driving," said Loyal Clark, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman.
But the beetle epidemic is a natural process, she stressed.
"It is a cycle that all national forests go through," Clark said. "It is a matter of getting used to a different face of the forest."