Mountain News: Aspen left in the dust 

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Conditions this year have been wetter, making conflagrations such as those seen in 2002 unlikely. Nonetheless, local emergency personnel and others in the Eagle Valley figured it was a good time to do a training exercise. The exercise, explains the Vail Daily, assumes a car had started a large wildfire that threatened homes in the high-end Lake Creek and Cordillera areas, about 20 miles west of Vail, forcing evacuation of residents.

But several scientists have challenged just how much the pine beetle epidemic has elevated the risk of wildfires. A team of scientists headed by Bill Romme, of Colorado State University, several years ago concluded that the wrong conclusions were being drawn from the current bark beetle epidemic. "The key point about lodgepole pine forests is that they were dense and burned infrequently historically, and they are dense and burn infrequently today."

Last year, geography professor Tom Veblen, of the University of Colorado-Boulder, added new ammunition to the argument. His research found fires correlated with 500-year cycles of sea-surface temperatures in the North Atlantic Ocean.

The take-home message from that evidence, says Veblen, is that natural cycles dominate. In other words, drought conditions determine when fires occur, and logging and other management has relatively little affect. Creating defensible space around subdivisions makes sense, he says, but massive logging in the name of fire suppression cannot be justified.

The Forest Service admits that much of the beetle-killed forests cannot be harvested, because of wilderness or other designations, but also because slopes are just too steep.

However, Forest Service officials - backed up by elected officials in Colorado - have been regularly lobbying Congress for more money, pointing to the need for tree removal along roads and powerlines, near campgrounds, and in urban-wildland interface areas. But the greatest need of all is in municipal watershed areas, regional forester Rick Cables tells Forest Magazine, in the summer 2009 issue. He points out that fires near Denver in the last decade have caused extensive and expensive sedimentation of that city's reservoirs. Other reservoirs for Denver and other water districts are also located among forests hard hit by bark beetles.

While some forests and scientists quibble about the role of logging, new forests are appearing. Regeneration commonly begins three to five years after an area has been logged. But forests also regenerate naturally, and so saplings have begun to arise among the dead, needle-less trees that remain standing.

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