Post- Beetle Species Change in Colorado

These may be spruce and not fir, but couldn't easily find photo

I know there are those of you out there who can never have enough beetle info (especially Colorado beetle info) so here you are. Here’s a link to the report itself.

Colorado: Beetle-kill a catalyst for dramatic forest changes
Posted on March 15, 2011 by Bob Berwyn

Subalpine fir will replace lodgepole pines as the dominant species in many areas affected by mountain pine beetles. Lodgepoles dominating regrowth in harvested beetle-kill stands; subalpine fir replacing lodgepole in untreated areas

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — One of the first solid studies on forest regeneration in beetle-stricken areas shows that there will be a dramatic change in the forest landscape. Subalpine fir will come to dominate huge areas previously covered by lodgepole pines, with as-yet uncertain consequences for the forest ecosystems.

Pine and aspen recruits are three times more abundant in harvested stands, while subalpine fir dominated in uncut stands. Based on their field measurements, Forest Service researchers said lodgepoles will once again become the dominant species in treated areas, with a more diverse mix of trees where there has been no logging.

Forest structure, including tree density, is projected to return to pre-outbreak levels in 80 to 120 years in both treated and untreated areas, with aspen becoming a significant part of the overstory for the next 50 years, before conifers once again dominate the canopy.

“It’s a system re-set,” said Forest Service researcher Chuck Rhoades, who worked in the field at the epicenter of the pine beetle epidemic around Gore Pass and in the forests near Walden and Granby to try and understand how the forests will heal. “There’s a lot of stuff going on underneath,” he said, explaining that additional studies will help pinpoint how different types of treatments may affect what comes next.
The four-page paper, “Signs of Recovery for Colorado Forests in the Wake of the Mountain Pine Beetle,” was published by Colorado State University’s Forest Restoration Institute, which partnered with the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station to do the research.

Rhoades said regrowth is strongest in areas where there were already some young trees sprouting beneath the lodgepole canopy. Some of the areas where subalpine fir are set supplant lodgepoles as the primary species will be quite different from the monoculture that has dominated the forest landscape for decades.

The firs are not susceptible to mountain pine beetles, but they can be killed easily by other insects and diseases. Rhoades said he would expect to see “more clumpiness,” with patches of different-aged trees rather than the common dog-hair stands of lodgepole.

From the report:

“The species (subalpine fir) is relatively short-lived and is susceptible to a number of insects and diseases, so it unlikely to form dense, evenpage stands, in spite of the high density of fir seedlings and saplings we measured. It is, however, reasonable to expect a shift from the uniform age and size conditions common in lodgepole pine-dominated forests to stands with more fir and greater size, age and overstory species diversity.”

But areas where the lodgepole was so thick that it prevented other species from taking hold — which includes big parts of the forests in Summit County — are more worrisome, he said. So far, there’s been little sign of new growth in those stands, whether they’ve been treated or not. Lodgepole may re-establish itself as the dominant species in those areas, but it may take a little longer.

The biggest change will be in the huge swaths of unharvested dead lodgepole stands, covering about 85 percent of the area affected by mountain pine beetles. Based on the field research subalpine fir will replace lodgepole pines as the dominant species in those areas, Rhoades said.

That holds true especially for the upper-elevation areas of the subalpine zone, where spruce and fir already had a foothold, said the Wilderness Society’s Grep Aplet.

“The real challenge is the lower elevation areas of Summit and Grand counties,” Aplet said. “Where mortality was less severe, the forests will recover quickly. In areas where it was most severe, the future is a little more uncertain,” he said.

There was no difference in seedling density colonizing clear cuts in live or in beetle-infested stands. But in harvested areas, lodgepole pines will once again become the dominant overstory species and grow back into stands similar to those that were attacked by pine beetles.

From the report:
“The implications of greater abundance of subalpine fir on High Country forests and communities remains uncertain. These findings represent the first stage in development of new forests following the beetle outbreak during a period of dramatic change that will have consequences for Colorado ecosystems and economies for many decades to come.”

11 thoughts on “Post- Beetle Species Change in Colorado”

  1. Bob- I posted on your blog my observation that based on figure 1 of the paper, there are more aspen in the harvested areas.

    • Thanks Sharon, I noticed that and asked Chuck about it; it may have something to do with the areas that are being harvested rather than the effects of the treatment, but they’re not sure.

  2. The title of the report says it all: ““Signs of Recovery for Colorado Forests in the Wake of the Mountain Pine Beetle.” After looking it over, the take home message to me is that much of the Beetle Mania and hysteria out there (and, to some extent, on this site) has been way over-blown. Forests change and evolve over time and getting a little more age and species diversity in a forest ecosystem is rarely ever a bad thing.

  3. What’s being described here is basic forest succession, with sub-alpine fir being the climax species. I don’t remember subalpine fir being a short lived specie, where I’m at in central Idaho they tend to get rather large on the more fertile sites, and they definitely live longer than lodgepole. I would think spruce would also come in to replace bug killed lodgepole on the moister and more fertile sites. Subalpine fir has that Eiffel Tower look when it’s grown in the open, a tall spire with branches that go all the way down to the ground. Sub-alpine fir is not as drought resistant as lodgepole and is susceptible to bugs and disease, especially when stressed by over crowding and drought.

    One thing that subalpine fir is rather notorious for around here is crowning out and sending sparks and embers up to a half mile away. The basic shape of the tree with limbs all the way down to the ground, allows the duff underneath to smolder and set the tree off in the afternoon when the heat and wind comes up. They’ve been described as Roman Candles by some of the fire fighters. Subalpine fir fires are hard to control (if they elect to suppress the fire). One strategy they use is to cut the lower limbs off the trees for some distance in from the fire line. I don’t know how fast the bug kill lodgepole will decompose, but heavy duff and ground fuels with a subalpine fir overstory would tend to burn well given the right conditions. As an aside subalpine fir do make nice Christmas trees.

  4. On the surface appears kinda warm and fuzzy…. Nice to believe that we MIGHT see this occur in 80+/- years…IF all other factors are equal and remain status quo….and in the meantime what about these issues:
    1) the estimated 2 billion mega tons of carbon that 60-70 million acres of decaying/burning forest is going to create?
    2) the estimated 60-80 million additional acres of forest projected to die off in the next 10-20 years?
    3) the erosion and waterway issues? We already have major issues regarding shortage projections coming up really fast, and it is going to get a whole lot worse with dirt and ash clogging up the most widely distributed water resources in the world…
    4) the estimated 2 billion +/- in cost to protect and clean up our urban and resort areas, our transportation and communications infrastructure, our power grids, our recreation areas, campgrounds, trails, forest service access roads and waterways? And that is just Colorado… without the cost of fire fighting!
    5) the enormous expense of fighting fires and protecting lives, homes, and communities?
    6)the likely decline in demand for real estate and the associated losses in property values? Especially in the areas where you can see the effects of a fire, but it is not real pretty to see a forest that looks like a giant game of ‘pick up sticks’ never got picked up for hundreds or thousands of square miles….
    7) the likely drop in tourism revenue or desire to purchase properties in our tourist/resort areas?
    8) And what about our responsibility to better use good ‘old fashioned’ common sense that should dictate that we really ought to be doing a whole lot more to utilize all that we can in the process of necessary timber removal to protect ourselves? (I say ‘old fashioned’ cuz there seems to be an enormous lack of it exercised in today’s modern world.)
    And more. Overblown? Not hardly. This forest die off through warming, drought, disease and insect devastation is occurring in all 19 Western States, and in fact it is happening all over the world.

    But here’s the the real kudo – A collaboration of top scientist, from many facets of science and study, believe we will see up to 60-70% of our forest die off by the end of the century, and it is anyone’s best guess as to how we are going to see this evolve.

    A recent Forest At Risk/ Forest Health Symposium held in Aspen is online here,, but if you want to do some real homework, then there is a lot of information out there that.

    • So Randy, what exactly are you saying? This is the same basic manifesto that you leave as a comment on nearly every forest health story that appears, but I’m having a hard time pinning down what you want to do. Is it just to harvest more of the dying forest? Or are you advocating for reforestation?

      And as far as “warm and fuzzy,” it looks like these researchers went out and meticulously recorded and reported what they found empirically, across many forest plots — that’s all. They can’t say exactly what will happen in 80 years, but what they are seeing right now gives at least some idea, beyond speculation, what might happen in beetle-killed areas.

  5. Bob, a simple, but not easy, three part action plan that has many components and possibilities within these steps:
    1- Little of real magnitude is going to happen until the public at large demands action. I have talked with or emailed many thousands of people over the years and think I can say with more true first hand experience than most, that a very small percentage of the public really understands the enormous impacts, and thereby the needs that this forest devastation creates. Sadly, we will all get it when it starts to really hurt ‘hip national bank’, i.e. our own pocketbooks.
    So we need a massive public awareness and education campaign that calls for action on many fronts, and through all types of organizations, (for example, the Scouts, sustainability organizations, water organizations, recreation organizations, towns, builders, schools, colleges, etc.), and the media as to the true and encompassing impacts.

    2) This ‘awareness campaign’ needs to inform people that we can use this product and that we can do so at a very affordable price. And it needs to encompass an urgent call for action, starting with a volunteer effort to help clean up and do some practical re-planting along our trails, recreation areas, waterways, etc. There simply is not even close to enough money to do what we need to do – ironically, we will no doubt find the money to fight the inevitable fires, but there is little to be found in a pro-active effort to reduce the dangers or the clean up expenses. Even if our country was not excessively debt laden, our politicians must have the public’s support to get anything done. Ultimately, every citizen in the USA is going to have to pay to clean up the havoc that the beetles and warming temperatures are leaving in their wake. Out of the 5+ million people in Colorado, we ought to be able to recruit thousands of volunteers that care about their state enough to get off the couch for a few days. And of the 307+ million in the USA, maybe we could get the help of hundreds of thousands more to help here and throughout the country.

    3- Utilize the timber brought out in every way possible. When the media reports ‘its hard to find local beetle kill lumber’, (at least 3 sources come up on the first page of a google search for ‘beetle kill wood’), or its ‘too expensive’, (compared to what?), or its ‘not competitive’ (Again with what? With government subsidized products?), I feel it does a disservice to the public by perpetuating misunderstanding of the real facts, and thereby discouraging the public from seeking the product out for utilization. These kinds of statements invoke a “Why bother? The news just told us it’s hard to find and cost too much…” Simply put, without supplying quantifying measures to balance what we in the Colorado wood industry know to be false (and can easily provide data to demonstrate the falsity of these kinds of statements), which are too often based on ignorance, it is only reporting opinion, not the facts that might otherwise encourage citizens to seek out the products and to support the last of the small industry that is left here in Colorado to help solve this problem in the best way possible.

    Here’s a few examples:
    Lumber is priced about the same or less than standard ‘run of the mill’ White Pine, which is one of the most affordable woods on the market. Why should we be expected to compete with government subsidized lumber from Canada or Russia? I’m betting there are not many businesses that would want to compete in this way and then read about how they aren’t competitive.

    Interestingly enough, The U.S. is taking Canada to international court over this:
    “How bark beetles are pitting the U.S. vs. Canada”

    Fencing, posts, rails, and mulch isn’t more expensive.

    Paneling, flooring and siding isn’t expensive compared with any other wood – except when compared with imported beetle kill. Over 120 sawmills have closed down since 2007 according to industry sources, and those big mills that are left out of state have to sell at about the same price as Canadian mills, or the blue stain sits in the yard. When blue-stain is only 5-15% of your product mix, you can afford to take some losses in exchange for cash flow, but you can bet they cringe when they see blue coloring. In Colorado, it is largely all that is available – and no company can operate at a loss in most of their product mix.

    I thank you for the opportunity to respond. There is a lot that needs to be done, and without the majority pushing to get it done, it is likely little will get done. And ironically, we will spend far more reacting to fires, ash and erosion, damaged power and communications grids, tourism and recreational revenue impacts, and maybe even lawsuits, than we would spend moving forward in a pro-active and defensive manner. My hat is off to Denver Water for committing capital and teaming up with the USFS in some preventative measures…. but hey, they have experienced the costs and results of the Buffalo Creek Fire and the Hayman Fire so it became an investment decision that will cost their customers far less than doing nothing and then reacting to a disaster.

  6. Jeez, it’s late so I forgot an important point that I believe we all better come to grips with…. there needs to be a public demand and thus an industry shift to utilize as many dead trees as is practical, while both re-foresting and leaving our living trees to absorb carbon and produce oxygen. When science indicates that North American forests are close to a ‘tipping point’ of off-putting more carbon than they absorb, we ought to be paying more attention.

    • With 22 million acres of dead forests (and growing, so to speak), I believe we have already reached and passed the “tipping point” of lodgepole forests. A substantial amount of the pure lodgepole stands are dead, but protected. What I am more concerned about is where lodgepoles have invaded into the lower elevation mixed conifer stands. It is sad that people are willing to sacrifice those eco-important stands to catastrophic wildfire, in the name of “nature”. When opposing sides cannot even agree upon impacts and assessments, a solution equitable to both sides cannot happen.

  7. The actual number of dead forests in Western North America is about 65 million acres – there are about 40 million in British Columbia alone. Everyone one of the 19 Western US states is seeing a surge in beetle killed and drought affected forest die offs.


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