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July 06, 2006

A Real Threat to Skiing as We Know It--Bark Beetles

Last week, I talked about the hysteria going around about how Global Warming is going to destroy skiing. I don't buy into doomsday scenarios like that. What I do buy into is a real environmental threat to skiing as we know it and to the mountain environments that is causing and making fires worse and destroying forests across the country--the bark or pine beetle.

Bark Beetles have almost destroyed the area around Brian Head. Winds close lifts where trees used to block the air flow. Dead trees in other areas are a major fire hazzard. It does not take Global Warming to destroy skiing as we know it. Windswept runs lose their snow cover as snow simply blows away.

From Scripps News comes this story about Winter Park, Colorado:

This ski town has stepped up its campaign to battle pine beetles, which have killed countless trees and threatened others in the surrounding valley and nearby counties.

Everyone, including residents, local government and giant resort operator Intrawest Corp., has been footing the bill to blunt the bugs' impact on a swath of Colorado, whose economy depends heavily on its scenic lands.

...

During a 1970s outbreak elsewhere in Colorado, the government launched a $20 million program to control the beetles. But now, perhaps more than ever, property owners and municipalities have been shelling out the money required to thwart the beetles and deal with the damage they cause.

The U.S. Forest Service is more likely to be providing training and advice on managing beetle-kill areas.

"This infestation is breaking all the records," said Mike Ricketts, winter-sports administrator from the Sulfur Ranger District of the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest. "It's unprecedented."

...

Trees also help keep the wind from scouring snow off the trails.

The effort required removing every third tree and taking them out by helicopter because of the steepness of the slopes.

Much of Summit County, too, has been hard hit by beetles, which feast on crowded, drought-weakened forests.

The problems arise when beetles drill through a tree's bark and lay eggs that later hatch into wood-eating larvae. Within a year or two, the trees go from green to rust-colored and then lose all their needles before turning gray.

Well, welcome to Brian Head. Ski Magazine has an article--The Bug that Ate Ski Country that talks about Brian Head:

ONLY A DECADE AGO, towering spruce trees shaded the runs at Brian Head resort, a picturesque ski area perched above red-rock cliffs in southwestern Utah. Then came the beetles. After a series of windstorms in the early 1990s toppled an unusually high number of trees, bark beetles proliferated in the deadfall. In 1994, they began to overwhelm and kill healthy trees on Cedar Mountain, where Brian Head is located.

Over the next 10 years, beetles killed up to 90 percent of the spruce trees across 30,000 acres of Cedar Mountain, including most of the trees at Brian Head. The spruce needles turned red and fell off, exposing “ghost forests” of standing deadwood. To reduce the risk of fires and to protect skiers from falling limbs and trunks, logging crews began removing dead and diseased trees. By the time the infestation ended, areas of the resort looked as if they were above treeline. "It used to be a big, beautiful, thick green forest," says mountain manager Mac Hatch, who’s worked at the resort since the mid-1980s. "Now there are just patches of spruce."

If you ski in the West, what hit Brian Head could happen at one of your favorite resorts. With astonishing ferocity, several bark beetle species are devouring conifers across millions of acres of forest in western North America. You can find epidemics in Colorado’s Vail Valley; in the lodgepole pine forests around Breckenridge; throughout Grand County, home to Winter Park; and in the Stanley Basin north of Sun Valley, Idaho.

Besides being unsightly, a tree die-off can harm a ski operation in a number of ways. With fewer trees to block the wind, Brian Head has had more lift closures. The loss of trees also makes steep runs more avalanche-prone. But the most frequent damage is to the texture and depth of snow, and is caused by something usually warmly welcomed by skiers: sunshine. "Snowpack that’s under a tree canopy has less solar radiation on top of it," says Brian McInerney, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Salt Lake City. "As a result, it doesn’t ripen as fast and it will last longer into the spring."

Posted by Justin at July 6, 2006 02:08 PM