Aspen die-off could be costly for Colorado as fall-foliage fizzles

Leaf-gaping season is officially over in Colorado’s high country, and many observers say it was one of the shortest and most disappointing displays of fall foliage in years. A lot of that has to do with Sudden Aspen Decline, or SAD, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal.

In a story in Wednesday’s edition, the WSJ said Forest Service researchers used aerials surveys to ascertain more than 500,000 acres of the state’s aspen trees have died off from a mysterious ailment that kills the massive, sucker-generating organisms at their roots.

That’s an estimated 15 percent of Colorado’s iconic aspen forests and could impact the state’s fall-foliage-gazing season, which reportedly accounts for up to 20 percent of the annual overnight stays in some mountain communities. While Colorado’s fall colors don’t draw the crowds New England sees, they’re still a key economic driver.

But unlike the massive die-off of more than 2 million acres of the state’s lodgepole pine forests caused by a mountain pine bark beetle epidemic, researchers aren’t sure what’s killing the aspens. There’s some speculation SAD is related to ongoing drought and possibly global climate change – blamed in part for the beetle-kill epidemic because temperatures have not been cold enough, long enough to kill the insect’s larvae – but scientists aren’t sure what’s killing the aspens.

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