Beetles and Wildfire

WW protects the backcountry and communities
Basalt Mountain prescribed burn

Fire is a necessary part of our ecosystem, and WW supports properly designed prescribed burns like this one on Basalt Mountain. Photo courtesy Bruce Gordon/EcoFlight.

The mountain pine bark beetle epidemic, which has swept through more than 4 million acres of pine forests in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming since 1996, has largely run its course.

However, people who live next to forests – especially in the eastern portion of our region, where the beetles have taken a heavy toll on lodgepole pine stands – are understandably concerned about the fire danger posed by the dead trees left by the epidemic, not to mention the impacts on scenery, recreation and the tourist economy.

Unfortunately, public worries and local officials’ desire to be seen to be doing something have fed something of a “killing the forest in order to save it” mentality. WW has therefore made it a high priority to be at the table where decisions are being made about beetle-kill treatments in our region.

That table is the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative (CBBC), which includes Forest Service staff, local elected officials and other stakeholders within a 10-county area. WW executive director Sloan Shoemaker helped found the group in 2005, and currently serves as its president.

As the lone representative of the conservation community, Sloan has brought to the panel an emphasis on forest ecology and fire science. He’s been instrumental in steering mitigation efforts toward the “wildland-urban interface” (the critical zone where communities adjoin the forest), where they’ll do the most good, and away from ecologically damaging (and essentially futile) treatments in the backcountry. Under his leadership, the group has built consensus around prioritizing projects that protect life, communities and infrastructure – and that consensus has helped secure $50 million in federal funding for wildfire and beetle mitigation projects in Colorado.

The CBBC is now pivoting to look at the post-epidemic “future forest,” examining what, if anything, humans can and should do to aid it. Sloan is continuing to advocate for an approach that allows the land to regulate itself as much as possible, intervening only where past human activities (e.g., fire suppression or grazing) have seriously degraded the land and where a one-time reset of conditions will strengthen natural processes.

At a more local scale we’re also an active participant in the Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan. This management plan for “Aspen’s backyard” (the Hunter Creek Valley and western flanks of Smuggler Mountain) has many good components, but it proposes some treatments that we think overreach. For example, we disagree with trying to completely eliminate bark beetles from the area, when these native species can play an important ecological role at lower endemic levels, and with trying to maintain aspen stands in sites that are likely just too dry for them. We’re helping tweak the plan in some important ways to ensure the forest is both healthy and wild.

In addition, Sloan and other WW staff frequently address professional audiences, homeowners’ associations and community groups on beetle mitigation and “firewising.” Firewise is a national program that promotes creating “defensible space” around homes and communities and rendering structures more ignition-resistant.