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Posted: 10/16/2009 01:00:00 AM MDT
Updated: 10/16/2009 11:40:39 AM MDT
(HR) ABOVE: These are dead lodgepole pines that have been killed by the pine beetle. These trees were found along the Peak to Peak highway in Boulder County. Federal and state forestry officials say that at current rates, mountain pine beetles will kill the majority of Colorado's large-diameter lodgepole pine forests within three to five years. Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post Pine beetle infestation (THE DENVER POST | HELEN H. RICHARDSON)
The U.S. Forest Service on Thursday launched a massive Colorado "hazard tree" removal project using contract and prison labor to cut dangerous beetle-killed pines.
Cutting crews are to fan out, lugging gas-powered chain saws along trails and roadways and at campgrounds, working to prevent some of the hundreds of millions of dead trees from falling on hikers and motorists on federal lands.
The project announced Thursday for the White River National Forest expands a $15 million hazard-tree removal effort that also targets dead trees in the Arapaho-Roosevelt and Medicine Bow-Routt forests. The total area accounts for about 4.2 million acres across western Colorado.
"We have to be responsive to public concern," White River forest spokesman Pat Thrasher said. "Yes, there are risks inherent with use of national forests, but this particular hazard is so widespread and pervasive that we feel there's a need to address it in a more aggressive way."
Liability issues drive the project, forest officials said.
Although no major accidents have been reported, close calls include an incident in which a Forest Service employee was nearly hit by a falling pine. And a pickup driver towing an all-terrain vehicle west of Tennessee Pass last summer reported damage from a falling beetle-killed tree.
Citizens have raised concerns that hazard- tree removal could lead to unnecessary intervention along roadways in forests. White River officials agreed to confine cutting to areas within 150 feet of roads, adjusting initial plans to clear swaths up to 250 feet.
The beetle epidemic has ravaged an estimated 2.5 million forest acres across Colorado, concentrated in forests dominated by a single species such as lodgepole pine. More and more are falling in the wind as rotting root systems weaken.
"We're very concerned about it, so we're taking precautions," regional Forest Service spokeswoman Janelle Smith said.
No mechanical cutting is allowed in wilderness areas. White River forest crews probably will let dead trees in wilderness areas fall on their own, Thrasher said.
Forest supervisors now are prioritizing which dead trees to cut along 250 miles of roads through forests, 380 miles of trails and on 1,000 acres at campgrounds, said Cal Wettstein, a member of the regional Forest Service bark-beetle response team.
Prison workers are to be drawn from Colorado Department of Corrections facilities in Buena Vista, Rifle and elsewhere. Plans call for inmate crews to team with firefighters, forest workers and contractors.
Many beetle-killed forests already are regenerating, with tiny trees sprouting beneath snags.
"We'll be doing some planting to encourage species diversification," hoping native spruce and firs can sink roots amid surviving lodgepoles, Thrasher said. "Then, maybe the next time around, the impact of a pine-beetle epidemic won't be as severe."