After several years of urging from San Juan National Forest officials, Purgatory Resort is considering undertaking a vegetation management plan that would include removing hazard trees from the ski area.
The project is tentatively slated to begin this summer and entails removal of dead, hazardous tree stands that pose a risk to lift lines or were destroyed by invasive insects, particularly on the higher slopes.
“Right now, we’re just scoping it, looking at the different stands and which should be treated,” Columbine District Ranger Matt Janowiak said.
Because the hazardous trees are scattered throughout the ski resort’s 2,400-acre leased permit area, he said he could not describe the project’s scope or acreage, but most affected spruce are near lifts 3, 5 and 8.
Similar to areas such as Wolf Creek Pass, Forest Service officials have noted an increasing problem not just with spruce beetles, but also spruce bud worms, which have intruded gradually on the ski area.
“We’re seeing the impacts closer and closer, and we have to take some action,” Janowiak said.
Bud worms feed on the new buds of spruce trees, preventing the growth of new needles necessary for photosynthesis.
Their damage is difficult to anticipate; the species works through trees at random, and some years are worse than others.
The move to strengthen forest resiliency is a first for Purgatory. The resort does not have a vegetation management plan, although a comprehensive analysis was completed as part of the resort’s Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision, which was approved in 2009.
The EIS was completed on behalf of the resort’s proposals for snowmaking and adding new lifts and infrastructure. As part of the Forest Service’s Record of Decision, the federal agency determined Purgatory should have a vegetation management plan, which sets criteria for hazardous tree removal and protecting forest health, resort infrastructure and the public.
“I would like to see the expansion of what we approved (in 2009) done responsibly, and I would like to see the resort continue working with us and looking for solutions through the vegetation management plan,” Janowiak said.
With parameters established by a vegetation management plan, Purgatory’s proprietors wouldn’t have to consult the Forest Service every time they remove trees.
Kim Oyler, spokeswoman for Purgatory, said the resort and Forest Service are in the early stages of discussing the plan, and she could not provide details.
“Purgatory Resort is committed to upholding the standards of being good stewards of public lands, and we work closely with the Forest Service on a regular basis,” she said.
The resort would incur the project’s cost, though Forest Service officials pledge to provide labor and expertise, and help the resort sell damaged wood to recoup some of the expense.
Purgatory’s plans come at a time when neighboring forest areas are being similarly ravaged by insects. About 50 acres of a 100-acre infested area near Wolf Creek Pass will be logged for dead trees.
Gretchen Fitzgerald, a restoration specialist for the San Juan National Forest, said protecting spruce firs is a complicated matter, because each insect species or fungi affecting the trees requires a different management strategy.
One option is to spray the tree stands with a type of bug deterrent, or remove the dominant, or largest, trees in the stands, which tend to be the most attractive to insects. Fitzgerald said the Forest Service also can strategically clear the understory so that bud worms fall to the ground rather than in the trees.
“We want to manage the forest so it becomes a resilient forest,” Fitzgerald said. “Resiliency means not trying to stop a disturbance, but continue to persist over time, despite the disturbance.”