Beetle-killed pine trees are plentiful in the Uinta Mountains near Evanston, where nearly 90 percent of the lodgepole pines are dead. The dead trees can serve as fuel for wildfires as the temperature heats up, lightning storms increase and people spend more time in the forest recreating. (HERALD PHOTO/Ed Close)
By Ed Close
EVANSTON — Carl Larson, director of the Uinta County Citizen Coalition, knows just how bad the fire danger is in the Uinta Mountains due to all the beetle-killed trees.
Right now roughly 90 percent of the forest is made up of mountain pine beetle-killed trees and they are very dry.
“It could be high but with the El Niño moving around over Wyoming and parts of Utah, there could be above average precipitation,” Larson said in a recent interview.
Weather forecasts are painting a different picture. Recent predictions from the National Weather Service are calling for a possible long, hot summer for Utah and parts of Wyoming. If weather patterns remain hot and dry and afternoon thundershowers occur as they often have in the past, there is a high likelihood of lightning-caused fires in the Uintas.
“We’ve been working on this since 2010,” Larson said. “We’ve spearheaded the effort. Right now 85 to 90 percent of the lodgepole pines are dead. It’s been tough to get things going.”
The citizens coalition has been working with a large number of agencies such as the U. S. Forest Service in Wyoming and Utah, the Utah Environmental Congress, Wyoming Wildlife Trust Fund, Utah Partners for Conservation, and the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative.
“Rebecca Fitzgerald with the State of Wyoming has been really helpful,” Larson said. “Rebecca is gone now but she really helped a lot with the Smith’s Fork timber sale.”
The Smith’s Fork sale covers approximately 57,000 acres, though timber harvest is being planned on only about 4,300 acres. Other timber sales are being considered in order to thin the dead pines before a major wildfire starts, as there is so much fuel from the dead trees. If such a fire were to get out of control, it might be extremely difficult to put out.
A study had to be completed before moving forward, and Larson’s group was involved in raising the needed funds from the very beginning.
“We got $233,500 from the Federal Natural Resource Policy Account,” Larson said. “The county couldn’t match the funds so they went out and found funds and put up $46,700. Whiting Oil gave $5,000, Summit County, Utah, got us another $10,000 and Larson Livestock put in $2,000. There were other contributors, too. Homeowners put in nothing even though they were asked.”
Summit County Councilman Dave Ure was also very instrumental in helping the coalition raise the needed funds. Ure has been working on the same problem as the citizens coalition but from the Utah side of the mountain range.
“Dave has been a big help to us,” Larson said. “He got us the $10,000 and the inter-local cooperation agreement between Uinta County and Summit County. He was instrumental through all of this.”
District Ranger Rick Schuler is also very involved in the effort. Schuler works out of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest offices in Evanston and Mountain View.
“We’re not in as high a fire danger as we were over the last couple of years,” Schuler said. “The needles that were red and dead on the trees have finally fallen and that reduces the fire danger in the trees.”
All the work so far, and there has been a lot done already in treating the trees all over the Uintas, has been concentrated around the Smith’s Fork region south of Mountain View because that area was hit hardest by the mountain pine beetles.
There were 57,839 acres in the Smith’s Fork analysis and 4,610 were treated. There is still a campfire ban in place in the High Uintas Wilderness Area in high use portions but fire restrictions have been lifted in other areas of the mountains.
The next portion facing environmental or NEPA analysis is called the Roughneck Salvage Area. That area covers some 77,000 acres with 6,141 acres being proposed for harvest but there are also 30,442 acres of roadless area that can’t be harvested, as no roads can be built in that portion of ground.
Another threat is possibly looming for the Uintas. In Utah’s Spanish Fork and Pleasant Grove districts, they have a serious problem with Fir Engraver Beetles. In the Uinta Mountains, it has so far been the pines that have been affected, and though there have been no serious infestations by the Fir Engraver Beetle seen so far, there have been spruce beetle moving into the Whitney area, moving west to east.
If the spruce beetles become a serious problem, the fir trees higher up in the Uintas could also be in danger. If the fir forest is lost to beetle infestation, it would create a dead forest all over the Uintas and not just the lower elevations where the pines grow.
“We haven’t seen any sign of the Fir Engravers up here so far,” Schuler said. “We have seen areas infested with the spruce beetles though. It’s a big concern and we have people monitoring the areas all the time, checking on that.”
The High Uintas Wilderness Area includes approximately 456,705 acres and it is estimated 407,300 acres are now affected by beetle activity. Approximately 42,600 acres are in wilderness areas while 192,600 are in roadless areas. The remaining 172,100 acres affected are managed by the Forest’s land and resource management plans.
These beetle infestations cause more problems than just stands of dead trees. There is an increased wildfire hazard to communities and watersheds, especially when recently killed trees still hold the red needles. There is also a danger from falling dead trees, a severely reduced aesthetic value, interference with power lines and roadways and less privacy and shade in campgrounds.
Though most of the dead needles have now fallen from the pines in the Uintas, there is an enhanced danger of fire caused by human activity, as all the dead needles are now thick on the ground.
There is also increased fire danger from summer thunderstorms and lightning. Dead trees can be be struck by lightning and catch fire.
The outbreak of mountain pine beetle in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest is a part of a much larger outbreak occurring all across the West from various types of Western bark beetles. There are about a dozen different species of beetles that have caused well over eight million acres of forest mortality in Western states. Without cold enough winters, the beetles don’t die off as they normally would and weather patterns show no signs of a return to the colder winters we once experienced in this area.
“People need to be careful out there,” Schuler said. “Fire danger is less now that the needles have fallen but there are a lot of dead trees out there and we’re trying to do everything we can to take care of the problem.”
In the last session of the Wyoming Legislature, a passed farm bill contains language that allows forest managers to treat up to 3,000 acres if the need is great enough and the treatment areas cannot be disputed as regular forest management areas can be. This gives forest management workers another tool in their fight against the mountain pine beetle and its relatives.