Of Beetles, Climate, and Forests: Forest Health Trends on the GMUG National Forest
Have you noticed a change in forest ecology in and around Gunnison County? If so, you’re not alone. The Gunnison National Forest and large swaths of Colorado are experiencing severe outbreaks of spruce beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis) infestation, leading to significant mortality of spruce trees. On the GMUG, spruce beetles are currently infesting mostly Engelmann spruce. They prefer mature, large-diameter spruce trees, but will infest smaller trees once most of the larger trees are exhausted within a stand. The spruce beetle outbreaks are a natural event that eventually lead to the death of old stands and the initiation of new stands. However, warmer and drier winters and summers in recent years have allowed a larger number of beetles to survive and thrive. Substantial wind throw events in 2011 and 2012 created prime breeding habitat for spruce beetles, exacerbating the problem. Consequently, the beetle flight (when new adult beetles emerge from the dead tree) in recent summers has been the largest witnessed by entomologists in decades.
Unfortunately, the Forest Service and BLM responses to this natural phenomenon put forest ecology at risk, are incredibly expensive, have little or no benefits for fighting wildfires, and are ultimately counterproductive. HCCA is working with our conservation partners, the public, and the federal agencies to respond to this landscape change in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the problem. For example, the Forest Service is in the process of finalizing its Spruce Beetle Epidemic and Aspen Decline Management Response (SBEADMR) project. At its heart SBEADMR would “treat” 120,000 acres of National Forest land over the next eight to twelve years, amounting to seven percent of the spruce-fir and aspen forests on the GMUG (the project also needlessly addresses Sudden Aspen Decline, a phenomenon that arose in the early 2000s drought affecting Colorado).
Since SBEADMR’s inception in 2013, HCCA has expressed concerns with this proposal and worked with the Forest Service and diverse stakeholders to lessen its negative environmental impact and focus its timber treatment to areas where hazard tree removal is actually necessary and desired: near critical infrastructure and communities. However, as proposed by the Forest Service, SBEADMR’s purpose and need are unjustified, it’s geographic scope too large, its analysis too vague, and its adverse impacts too severe. HCCA remains committed to vegetation treatment that focuses on public safety and critical infrastructure instead of mass manipulation of forested landscapes that are ultimately counterproductive and unnecessary.