Feature

Red Alert

Bark beetles are killing off Colorado's pines. Can we cope with the devastation?

By
May 2008

Rick Caissie's snowshoes stamp white tracks on a rust-red carpet of pine needles. December storms have pasted the Fraser Valley with more than four feet of snow. But snowshoeing near Granby, Caissie treads across a forest floor that's red, not white.

"I see this a lot," says Caissie, a recently retired planning team leader for the U.S. Forest Service. Virtually every lodgepole pine around him stands dead, killed by bark beetles that starve trees of sustenance until their green needles become brittle, russet-colored straws that shower down like autumn leaves. "After a decent wind, the whole ground is covered in needles."

From his office window, Caissie watched beetles transform the verdant Blue Ridge, which borders the Fraser Valley to the west, into a swath of red skeletons. That extreme makeover happened in just three years. But the carnage no longer astonishes Caissie, a 35-year Forest Service veteran who supervised beetle mitigation efforts in the Sulphur Ranger District. He knows there's no stopping the onslaught, so he's resigned himself to a beetle-ridden reality. "Almost every tree now is either dead or infested," Caissie says. "Soon we won't have anything left for beetles to hit."