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Bark beetle impacts local communities and properties

By Leia Larsen, Standard-Examiner Staff - | Oct 9, 2014
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Bark beetle brood are visible as yellowish, rice-sized specks beneath the bark as seen on this spruce tree during a timber harvest tour on Aug. 30, 2014. Although the tree may still appear alive and healthy, once bark beetles successfully penetrate the trees and lay their eggs, the tree will die and cannot be saved.

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Foresters and private land owners inspect a corridor of recently harvested trees on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest in the Uinta Mountains.

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From left, Arborist Jason Barto, Darren McAvoy and U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Rick Schuler demonstrate how to triangulate the height of a tree during a timber harvest tour on Aug. 30, 2014.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment in a three-part series.

The last Saturday of August saw a gathering of an eclectic crew of federal foresters, state foresters, loggers, tree enthusiasts and private landowners from Ogden to Kanab.

They met early in Coalville. A light fog rose from the Weber River, and the morning felt brisk with a hint of autumn. The group piled into SUVs and trucks, then caravanned along a dirt-road shortcut east to the Bear River Ranger District in the Uinta Mountains.

Utah State University, the Utah Division of Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service have partnered on these annual timber harvest tours for 13 years, right when the mountain pine beetle outbreaks began spiking. Their objective is to show landowners and any other interested parties the impacts and usefulness of logging, particularly during beetle epidemics. This year the tour got another partner, Jason Barto with Wasatch Back Trees. Barto formed his company around a year and a half ago to help communities living on the “Wasatch Back” — the opposite side of the Wasatch Front — to bridge the gap between natural forests on public lands and the community forests people have in their own neighborhoods and yards.

“I realized there was a huge gap in the knowledge base from what current research and arborists know from what (town) park people, landscapers and nurseries are doing,” he said. “That’s one of our missions, to take care of trees here, because they provide some of the same benefits, albeit on a smaller scale, that our trees in the national forests provide.”

The attendees on August’s timber tour came for varying reasons, but interests all centered on the tiny rice-sized beetles devastating forested lands throughout the West.

Utah has over 16 million acres of forested lands, many of them with trees succumbing to the mountain pine and spruce beetle epidemics. Around 69 percent of the state’s forested landscape is on federal public lands, with the national Forest Service managing the bulk.

When bark beetles go in search of trees to feed on and raise their brood, however, they don’t have any sense of human-made property lines. Large disturbances like beetle kill epidemics ripple from forests to communities, raising concerns about dying trees on private lands, perceived fire hazards and impacts to the recreation opportunities.

The appeal of private timber harvests

Among the timber tourists was Joe Richardson. He lives in a Bountiful, but owns several acres in the Uinta Basin, where he’s watched the bark beetles move through the Ashley National Forest, turning rusty red, then to graying bones of former robust pines.

“We’d liked to learn all we can about how harvesting works and what to expect,” he said. “Hopefully our timber can be used before the beetle gets it.”

Although most of the state’s forests grow on federal lands, around 22 percent of Utah’s forested lands are privately owned, which is no small chunk. When bark beetles wipe out the pines and spruce on private lands, property owners must grapple with unsightly dead trees, which become dangerous once they rot and fall. The cost of removing beetle kill, however, can run several hundred dollars per tree.

Loggers can help private landowners by turning their trees into marketable wood. The private landowners, in turn, help supply loggers with a source of timber that comes without the burden of cumbersome federal regulation.

“That’s the whole incentive, landowners will be getting money instead of paying for removal of their trees,” said PJ Abraham, a state forester with the Utah Department of Natural Resources. “It has been hard, but the market’s coming back … loggers are able to make more from them and offer the landowner a little more in return.”

After bumping down Chalk Creek Road and dropping south down Highway 150, the timber tour caravan made its first stop at the Bear River Ranger Station.

There, they met with District Ranger Rick Schuler, who oversees the Evanston-Mountain View district on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Schuler came to the district in the 1980s, and said he watched the mountain pine beetle devastate the area over the past seven years.

“It has taken 80 to 90 percent of lodgepole pine all across the district,” he said. “We’ve got a serious beetle epidemic here, as bad as we’ve ever seen.”

As Schuler pointed out, most of the national forest is designated wilderness or inventoried roadless areas, which by law cannot be harvested for timber. Only about a third is open to intensive management strategies like timber harvesting. Now that the mountain pine beetle has gobbled up all its food, the forest district is scrambling to keep ahead of another epidemic.

“Spruce (beetle) is going crazy here now,” Schuler said. “We’ve been trying to stay ahead … get those trees picked up, logged out, and we’re struggling. It’s not going to happen as quickly as we’d like it to happen.”

Schuler acknowledged federal regulations mean planning processes that often can’t keep up with a dynamic beetle epidemic. Those environmental processes are important tools in protecting the watershed, vegetation and wildlife habitat resources found in forests, but they can make moving dead timber a cumbersome process. 

“There are a lot of limitations we have on where we can treat, how much we can treat, what time of the year we can treat,” Schuler said.

Loggers don’t need to navigate those slow-moving federal processes by turning to timber on private lands, although they can still work with landowners to mitigate impacts.  

“We’re lucky we still have them, because a lot of loggers have gone out of business in Utah; there’s only about 8 or 10 sawmills still operating around the state right now,” said Darren McAvoy, a Utah State University forestry extension associate. He served as the main guide and forestry jargon translator for the timber tour.

McAvoy guided the timber tour group to a section of forest harvested a few years back. Small coniferous trees had sprouted on the forest floor, and a stand of thick green aspen remained undisturbed.

“Now, it’s all about protecting water quality,” he said. “Back in the day, we wouldn’t have worked around these aspen, they would’ve just mowed them over because they’re in the way. It would’ve been a complete clear cut.”

As McAvoy explained, timber harvesting has come a long way in the last few decades, which can mean fewer visual impacts to private lands. Loggers now take hand-selected trees, leaving behind some to shelter wildlife and encourage regeneration. Smaller, more maneuverable equipment means there’s less damage to the standing trees left behind. Loggers also work to avoid impacts on streams and water sources. They can scarify soils to promote regrowth. That care, in turn, has helped make logging a more attractive prospect to land owners looking to manage their own small forests.

In the near-term at least, it seems there’s enough wood on those private forested lands in Utah to keep the state’s remaining sawmills humming.

“Long-term, things are still uncertain,” Abraham said, “but I definitely think there’s enough to keep loggers busy on private land for the next five or ten years at least.”

Living on the edge

For a timber sale to be economical on a private property, however, it needs adequate acres and enough big trees for loggers to justify the costs of driving to the site and moving in equipment. Regardless of their lot size, communities near forested lands face other concerns emerging after the beetle epidemic, even if they don’t need loads of trees removed from their smaller lots.

Kamas, where Barto lives, is situated along the boundary of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, in one of the hardest-hit areas during the bark beetle epidemics. When asked what concerns he hears from his neighbors as they watch the expanse of dead trees grow, Barto offered some thoughts while driving from harvest site to harvest site with the timber caravan.

“Fire is a big concern, there’s more than just chatter about it,” he said. “Our biggest (worry) is our water quality, and the potential for impacts.”

Important water sources like the Weber and Bear rivers have their headwaters in the Uinta mountains, then flow west to metro areas on the Wasatch Front. Fires on nearby forests would devastate these drinking water supplies. They wipe out vegetation, which increases the amount of sediment, metals and organic material flowing into streams and tributaries. Murky runoff coming from charred areas can be an expensive mess at water plants and deadly for aquatic life.

Nevertheless, it’s a common misconception that beetle kill increases fire risk in forests.

“People see all these dead, red trees, and they look like standing matchsticks ready to go,” said Jeff Hicke, a forest disturbance researcher and professor at the University of Idaho. “But it turns out when the needles fall and the trees look gray, it fireproofs the forest to some degree.”

As Hicke explained, once pine or spruce die and their needles turn rusty red, there is an amplified fire risk for a few years. One those needles fall from the canopy to the forest floor, however, the danger drops, making dead stands less prone to fire than live, healthy ones.

“Most people are concerned about crown fires up in canopy,” Hicke said. “Those are the ones that move quickest, are hardest for humans to stop or suppress.”

An increased fuel load on the forest floor ups the potential for a ground fire, but Hicke said ground fires move slowly and typically cause less damage.

“We can fight those fires more effectively,” he said. “Rip-roaring crown fires are quite scary, move quickly and are threats to people and property, much more so than surface fires.”

Forests have long been characterized by disturbances, and fires and beetle outbreaks can be beneficial to forest health, taking down old trees and making room for regrowth.

“That’s actually quite a difference between beetle outbreaks and fires,” Hicke said. “Fire kills everything, whereas beetle outbreaks are specific to larger host tree species, but leave behind remnants of the forest.”

Changing forests

Still, regeneration can feel slow in the course of a human generation, and it can be hard to watch mass disturbances like beetle outbreaks, particularly for those who live near or enjoy recreating in Utah forests.

Like national foresters, communities and landowners can manage their small local forests to be diverse in age, class and species. Because forests in the state operate as a whole, regardless of ownership boundaries, those efforts in sync can help curb outbreak severity in the future and promote forest health.

“We’re looking at a natural change that’s occurring, but no one likes to see it occur on their watch,” said Paul Cowley, a resource and planning officer on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. “Everyone is used to fairly static forest without a lot of change.”

With a warming climate and more stressed landscape, it seems there will be plenty more disturbances to come. In time, patches of Utah forests may become dominated by different species, like fir and aspen, which may or may not encourage the same populations of wildlife. Still, in some form, the forests will endure.

“It’s Mother Nature’s way to turning back or forward the clock to move on to another ecological stage,” Cowley said.

After a long, cold day of looking at logging sites before, during and after the harvest, as well as a hands-on demonstration on how to triangulate the height of a tree, the homeowners and foresters piled back in their high-clearance vehicles. On the return trip back west to Coalville, Barto noted another change brought by the bark beetles.

“In some ways, for me, it has increased awareness of forest health and other environmental issues,” he said. “When (people) find out I’m a tree person, one of the first questions I get asked is ‘what’s going on with the beetles, what can I do to prevent it?’ That in turn gives me a foot in the door to talk about our community forests, and what we can try to do locally.”


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