Voracious beetle devouring pine trees in Central Oregon


The mountain pine beetle has killed swaths of Central Oregon forests in the past few years, and now the results of the beetles' work is showing near local recreation areas.

Trees killed by the beetle led to a June closure of one road near Elk Lake, one of the Cascade Lakes, because dead trees left by beetles posed a threat to people in the area.

In addition two campgrounds in the Fremont-Winema National Forests have closed because of 200 acres of infested forest. And in the Sunriver area, hundreds of trees infested with the beetle have been cleared in the last year.

"It's a huge issue when you have an epidemic, particularly when it's in lodgepole, and it spreads to other species," said Joe Stutler, Deschutes County's forester. "Any time that happens near a community and recreation area, you have public safety concerns."

The jumping between species is significant because the mountain pine beetle is part of the natural life cycle of lodgepole pines, which live about 100 years. The beetle, however, is not part of the life of a typical ponderosa.

Foresters won't know the extent of the damage done this year until next summer because it often takes a year for a tree to show telltale signs &

changing colors from green to red to gray &

of a beetle attack, said Andy Eglitis, an entomologist with the Deschutes National Forest.

The results of a mountain pine beetle infestation start as an aesthetic problem, marring green pine forests with stands of red, dead trees. But those dead trees can become fuel for wildfires or just present a danger of falling into public areas.

The current infestation &

which Stutler said is about three years old &

has changed local recreation patterns this year.

The Elk Lake Resort, for example, has seen some increased business because a road closure has cut off access to some beaches, said Jay Walsh, the resort's general manager.

But Walsh is still worried. As he looks out at the forest surrounding the resort, he sees increasing numbers of dead trees.

"It's just kind of scary to look around at our forest around us. It looks half-dead," Walsh said. "It's pretty scary to think one lightning strike, and this place is 'poof.' There's a lot of fuel on the ground."

Once an area has been infested, it's probably too late to prevent the pine beetle from moving through a stand of trees. That's why the Forest Service has several thinning projects in the region aimed at areas where the beetle hasn't yet arrived.

"There's nothing to do (at that point)," Eglitis said. "Most of the thinking is that once (beetles) are already in a stand, it's hard to make a difference with thinning because you won't have enough time for trees to respond with vigor. A lot of times, people don't bother, but we try to be proactive where (beetles) haven't come in yet."

Eglitis said that thinning is primarily done to remove brush and undergrowth that fuels forest fires, but most of the projects are also aimed at strengthening forest areas so that the pine beetle will be repelled by stronger trees.

The more crowded a forest is with trees, the fewer resources are available for them. If the trees compete for water, they end up with less of it and weaker defenses.

Elk Lake is not the only popular area in Central Oregon where beetles have hit or thinning could be needed.

For areas around Mount Bachelor that have already been hit with the pine beetle, it could be too late to do much, Eglitis said.

The Forest Service has some thinning projects under way and is investigating other areas in the Cascade Lakes that should be thinned, Eglitis said.

When complete in 2009, a project started in the winter of 2006-2007 will have thinned about 3,000 acres in the Metolius Basin.

The mountain pine beetle is attracted to trees under stress, said Stephen Fitzgerald, an Oregon State University extension forestry specialist in silviculture. "If you don't relieve the stress, you're inviting them in."

The Forest Service also plans to thin about 700 acres in Glaze Meadow near Sisters and Black Butte Ranch, said Brian Tandy, a silviculturalist with the Sisters Ranger District of the Deschutes National Forest. The far reaches of the forest are less of a concern than the areas closer to civilization, Tandy said.

And it looks like the beetles may be moving out of the distant wilderness and toward the more popular spots. The Forest Service is working at limiting that movement.

Fitzgerald said that he was walking the forest near Sisters with Tandy when they noticed the early signs of pine beetle infestation.

"In most of the areas, we can't do anything about it," Tandy said. "Wilderness is for wilderness, and it's not really supposed to be managed. Once a thing starts to happen, you probably aren't going to be able to stop it."


On the Net:

Elk Lake Resort: http:www.elklakeresort.net/pct.php

Fremont-Winema National Forests: http:www.fs.fed.us/r6/frewin/

Sunriver Resort: http:www.sunriver-resort.com/

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