For years ski-area operators and Forest Service officials who manage he public lands the resorts lease have been battling not only the largest and most devastating mountain pine beetle epidemic in the state’s history, but also the perception they were doing very little to combat it.
That should start to change in the coming year as foresters in the White River National Forest, home to most popular ski areas in the state, begin aggressively implementing plans for life after the beetle, when more than 90 percent of the region’s mature lodgepole pines have been totally wiped out.
“We’re not just going out and chasing red [and therefore dead] trees,” said Don Dressler, snow ranger for the Holy Cross District of the White River Forest, which includes Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas. “We’re really focusing on what we want to be there when we’re done and what we want to be there when our kids take over and are doing this years from now.”
Dressler is working with Vail Resorts planner Tom Allender on new vegetation management plans for Vail and Beaver Creek, which would include a menu of treatment options from clear cutting some parts of the ski areas to sporadic patch cuts to selective thinning to doing nothing in some remote areas.
The plans, which are a requirement of the special-use permits that allow ski areas to operate on public lands, are mostly outdated – written prior to the full outbreak of the beetle epidemic in the late 1990s. Since then more than 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pine forest have been killed.
“Jointly the ski areas and the Forest Service had decided to take a step back and, rather than piecemealing projects, try to take a holistic approach and really find this desired future condition, because really our efforts are best focused on the next forest,” Dressler said.
By using aerial maps, existing surveys and other master-planning documents, as well as just walking the stands of dead and dying trees, Allender and Dressler can determine what technique will work best in certain areas to reduce fuel loads and promote greater species and age diversity through thinning. Such diversity (promoting aspen, spruce and fir growth) reduces fire risk and guards against future parasite outbreaks.
“We’re not going to update an existing document because the last one was written about five minutes before the beetle epidemic started, and so it’s fairly mute on what to do about beetle trees,” Allender said, adding that the new plan will take a much harder look at the new reality of dying forest and how it impacts a ski area.
“A lot of the barriers between the trails we want to retain, and so it’s going to be a matter of managing the forest in those areas so they do retain some vegetative diversity and we don’t wind up with the Front Bowls of Vail,” Allender said, referring to the wide-open Back Bowls of Vail, largely treeless because of a massive forest fire more than a century ago.
Implementing the new plans will require public input and approval under the National Environmental Policy Act, but Allender said Vail ski area already has the go-ahead to clear out dead lodepoles in the tree islands below the top of the gondola and above the top of Chair 8.
That work will happen this summer and could ultimately remove as many as 1,000 dead trees, for which the ski company will wind up paying the Forest Service about $10 a tree. That cost comes on top of paying crews to cut down and haul off the trees, and resort officials said it’s an added financial burden in the face of mitigating a natural disaster on public lands.
“While we don’t really like having to pay for trees (while) doing forest management, we don’t think it’s a large enough price to stop us from doing the right thing,” Allender said. “Not paying the $10 per tree would sure help from the cost of it, but as I said, until the current rules change we’ll be continuing on.”
There has been some talk at the federal level and efforts by Colorado’s congressional delegation to streamline the environmental policy act and allow for the waiver of timber-sale requirements in the case of ski areas mitigating wildfire danger and preserving the character of the resort, but environmental groups have resisted.
“The idea is to do what we can to protect really important areas like ski areas and parks and protect communities from fire, because ultimately we don’t have the resources to do much on a larger scale,” said Ryan Bidwell, executive director of the Durango-based environmental group Colorado Wild, which does not favor changing the act’s regulations.
“It’s challenging because the Forest Service is required to get the most value from trees that come off of public land, so it’s always a slippery slope if you open the door to changes like that. In general we’re not in favor of changing the rules to try to address the problem.”