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Radiant Heat

Its time for another post about beetles, clearcuts, burns, and all that goes with that.

Beetles are demolishing the conifers of our western forests.  Rising temperatures, years of  fire suppression policies, and natural cycles contribute to these changes in our forests.  Its also worth saying that conifers have been around for eons of time, way before insects and angiosperms were on this planet.  At one time you can imagine the whole world covered with conifers.  Their successful strategy of being wind pollinated has allowed them to disperse and survive.

So what’s the fuss?

In the end its all about saving structures.  Man-made structures like our homes.  And money of course.  I don’t disagree with that in essence.  But I do think there is a way to work with nature, taking as much into account as is humanly possible.

Because there is money from the state only this year, rather than over 5 years time, my neighbors had incentive to almost clear cut the forest on their properties, for essentially free.  But the caveat was that the loggers got the dollars and useable wood, leaving the slash piles for the homeowners to take care of.  Thus, there are humongous piles all over the woods now, if you could call what’s left ‘woods’. And the homeowners are trying to figure out what to do with these piles.

Wow, what a gigantic slash pile in front of my house in my neighbor's yard

I too was given the same incentive, but chose not to use a logging company and am looking towards doing my project in a lighter way.  Of course, I don’t have the intense forest of spruce and dead fall they had.  What I have is a more sparse population of Limber Pines, suffering from Blister Rust and some beetle kill.

Last year on my own I began limbing up trees starting with those around my upper cabin, with the intention of over the course of 5 years, completely limbing up all the pines.  Limbing them up to 5-6′ might help the pines fend off the rust.  My logic is for two reasons:  first they avoid contact with the Ribes that likes to grow under and next to the pines. Ribes is a host for the rust.  Second, since the rust is a type of fungus, air circulation can never hurt in helping fight fungus.

When the state forester saw I’d started limbing around the cabin, he and the fire chief were happy.  Its a good step in fire prevention as well.

This year I’m selectively cutting and burning those pines that have active beetles, heavily.  Its been easy to identify.  The trees have pitch tubes where they are trying to pitch out the beetles.  The ones that have a plethora of pitch tubes probably won’t make it.  We’re cutting those and burning them on the spot.

Burn on my property

I also have trees from last year that succumbed to beetles.  I’m cutting those selectively, burning the debris and using the rest as firewood.  The beetles have already flown from those trees.

Then I’ll continue to limb up all the trees and burn the slash.  Finally, we’ll do a night burn where we’ll fix a perimeter and burn a low fuel ground fire to clean up the soil, making it fresh for new nutritious native grasses and the young seedlings I plan to plant to replace those that died.

I’ve noticed there are few young trees amidst the old.  I’ve read that in the White Pine family, as the Clarks Nutcracker distributes the seeds, the most successful germination rates are on new burn areas.  Maybe that is why there are so few seedlings here, as there hasn’t been a burn in probably over 100 years.

I didn’t own any of that spruce forest that I loved to walk in daily.

Devastated spruce forest after intensive beetle logging

Filled with owls, moose, turkeys, deer, black bears, coyotes, martens, squirrels and endless other creatures, I’d see their sign, hear their sounds, and know they found cover and food there.  Now the forest looks like a vast hurricane-like force came whipping through it.  And although nature herself can deal some devastating blows, it didn’t have to go down this way.  I would have made it a 5 year plan, slowly clearing with intention so that areas could grow in with willows and choke cherries, alders and native grasses, keeping cover as I cleared successively.

The forest now. There will be lots of blow down still to come

So what’s the fuss?  Sure, it will grow back in time, although not in my time here.  We humans are like a hurricane.  It takes discipline and conscious effort to go forth gently.  As the old adage goes:  Destroying is easy.  Any one can do that.  Yet creating and sustaining takes work, nurturing and love.  And that is what makes us truly human.

Beetle infested forest–How I would have approached it

View of the forest next to my home last winter

Here is the little forest next to my property last winter

This small forest is almost exclusively spruce.  Springs from higher up feed the area, making it swampy in many places.   The springs are on public land; the forest you see in the photo is on the private lands of several homeowners.  It is a small island of conifers surrounded on both sides by meadow.  The springs run through and feed into Elk Creek, a wetland drainage with willows harboring moose most of the year.

I walked the forest everyday last year.  Many of the spruce were either downed, standing dead, infested or going to be infested.  It wasn’t easy to walk through the forest with so much deadfall.  Yet these spruce were old growth, up to 200 years or more.  The forest harbored at least three kinds of owls, moose, bear, deer, coyotes, turkeys, and lots of birds.  Wolves traveled through on occasion.  Hawks fed on smaller birds and squirrels.  I’d seen weasel tracks.  The forest was alive all the time, and changing.

The State of Wyoming acquired some funds to clear beetle infested areas around structures as part of their fire prevention program.  Homeowners were offered so many dollars to clear around their structures up to several acres.  The homeowners who owned these woods pooled the dollars offered by the State, and with the State Forester’s help, hired a local logging contractor to clear the woods.  It was recommended that all deadfall, standing dead, infested, and larger trees (even if not infested on the premise that they’d soon be infested) be removed.  Aspens were to remain.  Young spruce would remain.  The money was there, now, this year only, so the homeowners decided to do the complete logging job in one fell swoop.   Here is what it looks like today, from the same viewpoint.Same forest this winter after cutting

In the photo below, the area thick with trees on the right is National Forest property.  The left side is the private lands.  One thing to note is that on the National Forest side, although there are some spruce, its steeper (not visible in photo), therefore drier, and has predominately Douglas firs, not yet infested.Public Forest not logged is on the right.  Logged on left are private lands

Closer up

You can see the fence divide between National forest & Private cuts

OK, personally, here is how I would have done it.  First, I’d assume a seven year plan.  I’d use the money available the first year and do the logging by hand, therefore preventing all the compaction and destruction caused by the large machinery.

Around any structures I would have cleared all infested and dead trees, leaving a fire break near the structure.

Next I would have selected ‘red trees’, that is, dead standing trees with their needles still attached.  These trees can be torches and should be removed.

Then I would clear the forest floor by doing burns in place where possible.  The giant brush piles in the photo above will burn so hot that it will take a lot of time for the grass to return.

That would be my priority for the first year.  I would put the forest on a seven to ten year plan of slowly clearing, opening up areas selectively for the regeneration of Aspen and Willows.  The forest certainly needed attention as there probably hasn’t been fires here in over 100 years.  By slowly clearing, animal homes and cover would be saved and new habitat created naturally.   Many animals used this forest as a corridor to travel yet stay hidden, especially moose.  The moose used the shade in hot afternoons after browsing on the willows in the marsh areas below.

In addition, now I can see my neighbors.  This could have been prevented.  Being that none of this forest is on my property, I really had no clout, only an opinion that I voiced.  But the fear of rampant fire seemed to cloud and dominant, as well as the available funding and the recommendations of the State agencies funding the project.

It will take years to regenerate even a little bit of cover.  Eventually, though not in my lifetime, Aspens will take over this area and that is a good thing.  The Willows will come first, but even before that I predict a giant infestation of Canadian thistle that will need to be hand controlled.  By clearing slowly, methodically, with sensitivity, the forest could regenerate at a more natural pace.

Tonight I caught a program on NPR about deforestation in Indonesia.  The Indonesian government has been giving private logging firms the right to log ancient community forests.  The local indigenous peoples are starving without their food source–the forest and its inhabitants.  I listened to a government agent say “This forest is declining and should be cut”.  Then I heard an indigenous leader say “This forest contains small streams that give us water, animals like tigers, orangutans and birds, and other animals we hunt for food, and plants we need for medicine.”  I ask you:  Whom of these two parties knows more about forest management?

Pine Beetles, Spruce Beetles, and what to do?

The County Fire Warden and the State Forester paid a visit to my neighbors last week.  There’s some money in the till to help homeowners clear dead and dying trees from their properties.  Since my area is full of beetle kill, and getting worse exponentially every year, we’re sitting ducks for a big forest fire.  The fires are going to happen, and need to happen for a variety of reasons, and the number one issue of fire fighters is saving structures (and lives of course).  If we can help out beforehand, all the better.

My neighbors and I have been talking about the little forest that surrounds us for several years.  Its mainly Spruce (Picea engelmannii)–old Spruce–and they are being hit hard by the beetles.   In fact, one of my friends counted the rings on a downed large tree–185!  That’s almost 200 years old, the average life span of a Spruce.

The Douglas Firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) interspersed amongst them seem to be healthy for now, and all around the outskirts where there is light, as well as the areas where the spruce have fallen, Aspens are coming up.  The small forest is half private lands and half National Forest.  Its sits below a shelf of limestone where the springs run–our drinking water.  So the area is wet, and sometimes swampy.  The Spruce like this.  Upslope above the springs, it’s mainly Douglas firs.  Higher than that, there is less ground water and the forest turns into a mix of Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis) and Doug Fir.

I don’t own land in the Spruce forest so I was not a part of the walk-through, but I was told that the way the money from the State will flow is more reimbursement for the first acre around structures, and then the reimbursement percentage diminishes the further out you go from buildings.  The recommendation was to have one logging company do the whole job.  It wouldn’t be clear-cut.  They’d be taking out dead standing trees as well as clearing (probably burning) ground fuels.  The spruce are in such bad shape that there’s no money in it for useable timber.  Its good for firewood and/or log cabins.

My friend who was a forester for over 30 years cleared up some misnomers for me.  I asked him if it was true that standing dead trees were no more a fire hazard than standing live trees.

“True”, he said, “but trees with dead needles are like a torch.  Dead needleless trees are equally a fire hazard as live green ones.  What’s the real hazard is all the ground fuel.  Crown fires can’t usually continue very far unless they have fuel below to ladder them up.”

I made a point to mention to the State Forester that our small forest is home to moose, three species of owls, deer, turkeys, bears, and various obvious small birds and mammals.  Sensitive logging is imperative.

When they had finished with the Spruce forest, they showed up on my property and we walked to my upper area which is Limber Pine exclusively.  When I first got the property several years ago, there were no dead trees.  Last year I noticed I had blister rust, which I’m sure they’ve had for years.  But this winter I had several trees suddenly die on me from pine beetle.  I was anxious for the State Forester to see my trees, their health, and show me how to identify beetles and explain in detail their life cycle.

Apparently, the pine beetle has a one year life cycle as opposed to the spruce beetle which has a two year cycle.  The beetles fly sometime in the late spring, find a tree or trees (they look for larger ones), lay their eggs, and the larvae overwinter and feed on the tree.  The beetles make tunnels, called galleries, laying their eggs as they go along (and eating the tree as well).  The Forester found a cluster of infested trees on my property in one area.

Last years kill

Last years kill

He took an axe and cut into the bark, exposing the tissue of the tree beneath and showed us the galleries along with a beetle (quite small).

This tree is a goner

This tree is a goner

The identifying feature on my Pine trees is the frass(tissue or wood of the tree) at the base of the tree as well as the holes with pitch and frass where the beetles have bored and the tree is trying to ‘pitch’ them out.

Frass at base of tree

Frass at base of tree

If the infestation isn’t too bad, if the tree isn’t stressed by other factors such as drought or disease, then a tree can usually fend off the beetles by producing a lot of sap or pitch in the wound, just like your body might get rid of a splinter.  But between the extended drought years and the blister rust, many of my trees are succumbing.

Tree trying to pitch out beetle

Tree trying to pitch out beetle

What can I do?  Not much.  The pines that are dead no longer have beetles in them.  I can use them for firewood or leave them standing dead (better to take most of them down to reduce the fire hazard, although Limber Pines usually don’t present much of a fire hazard as they burn out).  The ones that have infestations this year I should cut down this winter and burn them onsite.  Burning will kill the larvae, insuring those beetles won’t fly next spring.  And the old specimen trees I want to save I could put pheromones on (He says that’s iffy at best) or spray with Sevin (toxic chemical) which works well.

In addition, I’ve noticed that there are very few young trees on my property, or on the Forest Service property next to mine.  This is probably due to a combination of drought, poor seed production, and blister rust, which has hit the young trees hard.  I suggested, and they agreed, that I begin a planting project of seedlings.  There’s no money for replanting in Wyoming.  Montana or Idaho might give homeowners money for that, but Wyoming doesn’t (not a heavily forested state).  I’d be planting for the future.  Pinus flexilis takes about 40 or 50 years before it begins to cone and produce.

One thing I can do is pray for 2 weeks of cold weather.  20 degrees below zero for two consecutive weeks kills the larvae.  We haven’t had that for years, and with global warming (or climate change, whatever you want to call it), that kind of cold is getting harder and harder to come by.

For now, it looks like the trees have ‘the plague’.

This tree looks like it has smallpox!

This tree looks like it has smallpox!

Of course, these cycles are natural in nature.  The Spruce will disappear and be replaced by Aspen, as well as young spruce and doug fir.  The Limber and White Bark are more problematic–between non-native Blister rust and native pine beetles killing whole forests, these pines contain nuts that are the fall food for Grizzlies.  They need the fat for their winter hibernation.  Pine nuts are to the Grizzlies of the Rockies as Salmon is for Grizzlies of Alaska; and as the trees disappear, another food source will be needed.  With warmer winters come shorter hibernation periods.  I suspect that will mean more Grizzly/human interactions and that, of course, means bad news for the bears.  Bears never are the winners in conflicts with humans, at least in the long run.

Last summer I spotted a government vehicle next to a nearby Aspen grove.  I stopped and chatted with the plant pathologist working on a 5 year Federally funded Aspen study in the Western U.S.

“The Aspens in Colorado are dying, by the droves, and no one knows why,”  he told me.

I asked about our trees.

“They’re just dying of the usual pests and diseases.”

Things are changing all over the West, in so many unpredictable, unusual, and new ways.  Dogwoods, Magnolias, and Redwoods once grew in Yellowstone, millions of years ago.  Twenty two different species of Redwoods were native to the United States.  Now only two species grow in just a tiny portion of California.  We’re in for some big changes.

Pheromones, Pine Beetles, and more about fires.

I talked with the Wyoming Dept. of Forestry today.  Apparently, the state deals with private landowners, not the forest service.  I’m definitely going to go for ordering pheromones for my trees. Paul in the department told me that, yes!, the grizzlies do use the Limber Pine nuts as well as the Pinus albicaulus.  He also told me that because of lack of fires, the Limber Pines have become an invasive on rangeland.  Of course, I don’t have rangeland.  I butt up to a National forest full of Limber Pines from 7000′ all the way up to 8200′ or more.

He said they’ve been doing a lot of management with the North Fork and South Fork, but up till a few years ago, my area was doing okay enough.  “Not anymore” we both acknowledged.  The south facing slopes across from me are full of beetle kill on the ridge tops.  The end of my valley that butts up against the Park is now about 50-70% dead trees. Compare that to the east entrance to the Park (up the North Fork) which is about 90% dead standing timber.

The fires of ’88 came through parts of my valley and through Crandall, which is north of me.  In fact, the tiny town of Crandall was almost entirely engulfed and thanks to a major effort, was saved.  When you drive by Crandall, you can see where the fires came down almost to the town.  Apparently, it was some of the hottest fires.  Now the hillsides are regenerating with Aspens.  Cathedral Cliffs along Chief Joseph Highway

The point is, those fires near me in ’88 helped form a buffer from the pine beetle which spared my area up till now.  But like the economy, those fires of ’88 just ‘kicked the can down the road’, and now my valley’s time is up; due for a big fire.

This winter there’s been logging trucks on my dirt road daily.  The biggest private landowner is logging beetle kill around his property for fire protection.  The Game & Fish clear-cut a big swath of spruce and fir to make way for aspen growth, and the neighbor to my east is cutting and burning beetle kill weekly.  Everyone is aware: its only a matter of time till the fires come this way.

The thing about the blister rust on my trees is that they’ve weakened the pines, along with the many years of drought.  Paul said that usually the rust doesn’t kill the trees, especially in the Rockies due to the dryness.  And I can see that’s true.  These are older pines and surviving despite the brown needles.  But then the pine beetle finishes them off.

This is not a spruce or pine beetle but a wood-eating beetle that eats dead wood. They are scary looking though and BIG!

So I have a choice.  Spray with Sevin or use the Pheromone packets.  The spray lasts for 2 to 3 years.  The Pheromones only one.  But its a no-brainer for me.  I’m just not going to use a non-targeted toxic chemical.  Non-targeted in the sense that it kills beetles, and also other insects that could be beneficial; plus the other types of toxicity.

The pheromones simply are a chemical mimic that tell the beetles “This tree is occupied with beetles already.  Go find another tree.”  If you already have beetles in a tree, neither the chemical nor the pheromones will work.

Paul will come over and look at my property.  Its fairly expensive at $7/packet; but its for a good cause.  What we discussed is instead of just tagging important trees, I’ll do a grid of packets over my 6 acres.  When he comes over, we’ll look at the density and see if I need less than the 30 pkts/acre, which I think I will.  May is the target month to put the packets on the trees.  The beetles fly in July and August.