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Resort company battles beetles on Mesa

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Photo by Hank Lohmeyer Closeup view shows sap oozing down pitted bark, the sure sign of spruce beetle infestation.

The Grand Mesa Resort Company is in a race against time and Mother Nature.

Now in its second year of an aggressive campaign aimed at ridding spruce beetle from the company's 375 acres of spruce-fir forest, the company is working to gain ground against the tree-killing pest and to overcome many obstacles along the way.

The work will be completed by the end of next summer, "we hope," said GMRC board member Dick Kirkpatrick. As always, when battling Mother Nature there will be lots of surprises. This year as the GMRC was ready to get a start on removing the 600-plus beetle trees left over when last year's work was halted by winter, the project ran into problems with a tree haul route badly in need of repair. During that delay, the current year's spruce beetle brood has hatched and flown from its larval brood tree homes out into the surrounding healthy forest. The extent of the most recent flight of beetles will have to be evaluated. Because of that untimely setback in the GMRC's effort, there will probably be more trees infected with the spruce beetle next year.

"We're trying to get ahead of it," Kirkpatrick said.

The company and the resort community it established some 100 years ago on property that is now a national forest private inholding is facing an onslaught of spruce beetle. The bug is attacking and killing thousands and thousands of old-growth Engelmann spruce trees on the Grand Mesa and GMUG, including more than 887 at last count on the GMRC's private property.

Beginning last year, with help from forestry students at Colorado State University who were working with the Colorado State Forest Service, an on-the-ground inventory identified the 887 trees on the GMRC property that were either brood trees for spruce beetle larvae or dead trees that the beetles had already killed and which were still suitable for salvage and processing for lumber.

GMRC company managers have also been working closely with the U.S. Forest Service on a program to treat the acres they are the stewards of. The Grand Valley Ranger District of the GMUG has been eager to assist in the resort company's program. The GMRC's private efforts help achieve the major objective of the Forest Service's own program: that is to remove trees that pose potential threat to high value infrastructure including roads, power lines, and structures like the some 250 summer cabins of the GMRC.

The ideal time to remove a beetle tree is just after it has become infected with eggs and larvae. The trees, when attacked by the beetle, have the appearance of "being shot with a shot gun," Kirkpatrick explained. As the insects burrow through the bark into the tree, the plant responds by oozing large quantities of sap, its natural defense against invaders.

But with the present spruce beetle infestation the numbers of bugs attacking trees are so large that they overwhelm the tree's natural defenses. The spruce beetle has been responsible for a 100 percent kill rate in stands of the Rio Grand National Forest. Spruce beetles from that infestation have been moving northward and are now present in the GMUG, say entomologists with the USFS.

The magnificent stands of Engelmann spruce that comprise much of the Grand Mesa's spruce-fir forest cover are considered to be "old growth." As such they are prime candidates for an Invasion of spruce beetle.

If dead beetle trees stand in the forest for too long they lose value as lumber. Their primary use then becomes for firewood and they need to be removed to prevent becoming potential forest fire fuel.

A commercial logger and tree hauler the GMRC hired was able to get some 250 trees removed last year before winter weather halted logging operations. Besides having lots of firewood for resort residents, the company has found one happy synergy in their effort. By making its private lands available for the "agricultural harvest' of spruce beetle trees, the value of the timber they are providing is a huge offset to the cost of logging operations, Kirkpatrick explained. The Colorado State Forest Service which has responsibility for private and state-owned forest lands, has also helped the company find a qualified logger and wood haulers for the work.

The resort company has been proactive in its spruce beetle program. For the past four years they have also been working with a private tree hauler who uses a horse and team to take diseased and dead trees individually from areas that no road access at all. Kirkpatrick notes that the effort is one that is actually providing other benefits to the company's lands as the horses hooves don't compact the soil as equipment tires do; they stir the soils up and encourage new growth to develop and the result is visible in several areas where the horse-and-team operations have been used.

Though the spruce beetle is now ravaging trees on the GMUG, its threat has been known for some time. The DCI first began reporting on the spruce beetle threat to the GMUG in 2006. At that time, large windthrow (or blow down) event on the Grand Mesa had felled hundreds of trees in the Island Lake area, and in Little Bear Campground which was closed for a time because of it. GMUG forest managers arranged a tour of the area showing "stakeholders" the extent of the damage and asking for cooperation to allow a timber sale for removing the trees. The downed trees, still fresh, had created an ideal breeding ground for spruce beetle.

The Delta County Commissioners were a huge help in the GMRC's effort by agreeing to cooperate and carry a significant amount of the financial burden for fixing the haul road that will be the route out for felled trees during the rest of this summer and into the future. Once road repairs are made along Baron Lake, the removal of trees will resume this year. Kirkpatrick hopes that work can continue into November.

The USFS program for dealing with spruce beetle on the GMUG, and especially in the area known as WUI (wildland urban interface) is in its final phase of pubic comment. A final decision on the program is due by the end of summer. The Forest Service will at that time decide whether to implement its basic plan with possible alterations, or to take no action at this time, according to an agency advisory.

The GMUG's proposed treatment action will focus first on some 890 acres of the highest value locations in the WUI areas.

The forest Service's program for treatment will involve ground-based mechanical harvesting. As many large trees as possible will be left in place. Slash piled will be burned, temporary roads will be used, and spruce seedling may be replanted as well.

Trees that have suffered death from spruce beetle kill are a serious danger as forest fire fuel, and from falling. Trees that have become infected by spruce beetle and are still harboring the next generation of the pest (known as brood trees pose a serious threat to the forest's healthy trees.

Photo by Hank Lohmeyer Trees are being felled and stacked for removal once the haul road receives needed repairs.
Photo by Hank Lohmeyer The Grand Mesa’s majestic stands of old-growth Engelmann spruce are blighted by the effects of spruce beetle.
Courtesy GMRC Aerial photo shows boundary of the GMRC’s property. Yellow dots illustrate density of spruce beetle infestation by number of trees affected at various locations. There were 887 infected trees identified duing the 2014 ground survey charted on the map. Some trees have been removed since the survey, and other new tree infections are probably taking place now.
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