The spruce beetle has ravaged the forests surrounding Wolf Creek Pass in the Rio Grande National Forest, but haven’t yet severely affected spruce stands further west in Montezuma, Dolores, and San Miguel counties.
To mitigate the potential western spread of the spruce beetle epidemic, the San Juan National Forest is considering offering the local timber industry opportunity to harvest spruce fir, including trees killed by the beetle.
“With all the mortality we need to start doing something and have a mill willing to buy our sales,” said forest supervisor Kara Chadwick during a meeting Wednesday at the Dolores Public Lands Office. “We want to develop a proposed action for treatment and we need buy in from the public on what you want.”
Montrose Forest Products is accepting spruce fir, including those killed by beetles, for milling into boards.
Once the tree is killed, the beetles move on, but the timber is still viable for milling if it is harvested in a timely manner. Officials are considering thinning mono-culture spruce forests to increase stand diversity and lessen the spruce beetle impact.
Preparing new timber sales for spruce requires at least a one-year lead time to comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act.
A plan is being formulated now on how to best handle a potential infestation of spruce beetle, a native that species flourishes during drought when trees are stressed and cannot defend against them.
A 2014 aerial survey indicates some natural levels of spruce beetle and spruce bud worm activity in the region, including on Taylor Mesa, Upper Haycamp, Willow Divide, Roaring Fork, and Lower Hermosa.
Large spruce fir stands without noticeable beetle impacts are considered at risk, such as around Bolam Pass and Lizard Head Pass.
“In the last five years, spruce beetle has began to creep more into the area,” said Travis Bruch, a timber and fuels manager for the forest.
The spruce beetle is particularly devastating when it gets established, he said, because it goes for the largest trees first.
The bug bores into the tree during spring to lay eggs then dies. The larvae kill the tree by eating under the bark over winter. They emerge as beetles the following spring to mate, and repeat the cycle.
“Most of the higher elevations are pure spruce, and when the beetle gets established in the right climate conditions there is a 80-90 percent mortality like you see on Wolf Creek,” Bruch said.
Forest officials said they will never eradicate the native spruce beetle, and can only practically manage for it on a small percentage of the forest.
In protected Wilderness Areas, such as the Weminuche, Lizard Head, and Sneffels, timber harvest of spruce, including those killed from beetles is not allowed.
The large commercial mill in Montrose is key to supporting the local logging industry, which relies on timber sales in the San Juan National Forest.
When the mill changed hands years ago, it reduced its purchasing of the ponderosa pine abundant in this area. Since then ponderosa timber sales offered by the local forest have been left unsold, or harvested on a smaller scale for firewood.
Forest officials are looking to control a potential spruce beetle epidemic by taking advantage of a mill willing to accept spruce fir.
“We’re focusing on spruce fir, but will continue our Aspen sales and stewardship contract in Pagosa,” Chadwick said. “Where developing a proposed action to recover some wood where the beetle is going, and do treatments to make stands more resilient.”