Mountain News: Raise your hand if you helped kill pine trees 

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO - BUgging out Since 2006, a fungus spread by bark beetles has killed off trees on chunks of land equivalent to the entire state of Montana.
  • shutterstock photo
  • BUgging out Since 2006, a fungus spread by bark beetles has killed off trees on chunks of land equivalent to the entire state of Montana.

In the most recent epidemic of bark beetles, which began in about 1996, pine trees in the western U.S. have died on chunks of land that, if aggregated, would be as large as Montana.

Keep in mind that the majority of Montana is on the Great Plains, scarcely a tree in sight.

But what caused those trees to die? Bark beetles, of course, or more precisely the fungus spread by the beetles. The fungus cuts off transport of nutrients and water.

Drought weakens the trees, and many are old, making them more vulnerable. And we've had significantly warmer temperatures.

Now comes a new study that finds that milder winter temperatures can be at least partially blamed for some outbreaks, but not all of them.

Aaron Weed, an ecologist at the National Park Service, says those not-so-cold winters can explain beetle outbreaks in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, as well as the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon and northern Colorado.

"In these regions, winter temperatures during the 1980s were more likely than in recent years to drop below the lower lethal temperatures for mountain pine beetles," says Weed and co-author Matt Ayres, a professor at Dartmouth.

But in coastal and southern regions, winters dating back to 1989 were never cold enough to cause substantial beetle mortality. Instead, the researchers point to other factors, such as warming summer temperatures that affect seasonal rhythms of beetle development and forestry practices that influenced density of forests and resulted in even-age stands.

Whatever the cause, the massive die-off of pine trees in the southern Sierra Nevada of California is provoking fear in the hearts of mountain residents, reports the Fresno Bee.

The fear is of a wildfire. But a study by University of Colorado scientists finds less of a link between beetle-killed forests and wildfire than is generally supposed.

Sarah Hart, author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, says that beetle-killed forests are no more at risk of burning than healthy forests.

"Forest fuels may get drier as a result of fuels being dead from insect infestations. But the fuels in live forests are dry enough to promote fire. It is weather conditions — warm and dry conditions — that make the difference," Hart said.

The Denver Post noted that federal forests have linked beetles to increased fire hazards. A research ecologist, Matt Jolly, did not dispute Hart's study but defended efforts to thin trees. He pointed to a tendency of beetle-killed trees to ignite quickly and burn at exceptionally high temperatures.

The disagreement is a long-standing one. Ecologists like Hart, the university researcher, say that spending big money to remove dead trees appears pointless.

Big housing now on the rise

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Real estate development has returned to Telluride in full force, bringing with it questions about how the new and usually larger buildings should be integrated with the old.

"Clearly, buildings permits are way up from last year," reports Greg Clifton, the town manager. "What is more remarkable than the number of permits, however, are the valuations. A lot of big-dollar items are being pursued for the first time since the recession. Big money is being spent on these projects."

Clifton also points to concerns about residential housing replacing commercial space, but also crowding out more affordable housing units.

Then there's also the issue of how new should be integrated with old. The town altogether exists as a National Historic Landmark District. In 2006, at the height of the last boom, the National Park Service warned that development in vacant lots and alterations or additions to historic buildings were eroding Telluride's special historic charm.

Now comes a proposal for a three-storey commercial and retail building between the ski area and downtown Telluride. The Daily Planet reports heartburn among historic preservationists at a recent gathering.

One concern is the size. At 809 square metres, the building would dwarf an adjacent 74-square-metre house. "Four times, five times the size of the neighbouring structure, I think we've all come to expect," said Chance Leoff, chairman of the Historic and Architectural Review Commission. But 10 times the size, he added, pushes the town's guidelines.

John Lifton-Zoline, son-in-law of Joe Zoline, the developer who transformed Telluride from an unvarnished, fading old mining town into a modern mountain resort, argues that the preservationists don't know their history. He cited historical maps from over a century ago that show a mix of warehouses and residences.

"What you have there, cheek by jowl, are quite large warehouses and quite small residences... It was a mix of big and small buildings, and I think that's what we're doing," he says.

Do what you will, but clean up the dog poo

ASPEN, Colo. — The trail on Smuggler Mountain, located on Aspen's east side, is a popular one for Aspenites. It's close and has a forgiving grade. No wonder so many people like to take their dogs there for a stroll.

But do they clean up after the dogs? Not so much, reports the Aspen Daily News. A sign has been posted at the base of the trail, reminding hikers that "There is no poop fairy."

John Armstrong, senior open-space ranger, tells the Aspen Daily News that dogs are allowed off leash, which may be the source of the problem. He said the major problem comes from well-intended pet owners who pay too little attention.

"People who feel they are doing a great job need to do a better job. That's the crux of it."

Hundreds of pin flags have been planted along the trial to show where dog poop remains. In Telluride, he notes, the fine for a first offense for those letting their dogs poop without cleaning up is $250 and five hours of community service.

Still plenty of people yakking on cell phones

JACKSON, Wyo. — Twelve months after Jackson elected officials banned the use of cell phones while driving, the town has spent $10,000 on newspapers ads and road signs to let people know of the ban. A good number of warning tickets have also been dished out.

Still, when the Jackson Hole News&Guide lingered on a street corner recently, the reporter observed 16 violations of the law in just 30 minutes. On average, 18 citations have been given monthly by police since the law was adopted.

Former Mayor Mark Barron had pushed hard for the ban. He was not normally an advocate of getting too far ahead of the public. For example, he resisted efforts to ban grocery stores from distributing throw-away plastic shopping bags.

But he was persuaded by a 2006 University of Utah study that found drivers talking on cell phones, even if they are hands-free types, are as impaired as drunk drivers. As well, there was the case of the local high school student, highly accomplished and well regarded, who was killed by a phone-distracted driver.

On the other hand, a researcher from the University of Colorado, Boulder, last year found no evidence that a California ban on use of cellphones by drivers reduced traffic accidents.

Whatever the science, it's the law in Jackson's town limits — and police chief Todd Smith says that enforcing the law cannot be the total answer. "We need to have buy-in," he says.

Year's busiest weekend turns into something else

JACKSON, Wyo. – You might think that Christmas or maybe the 4th of July is the biggest weekend of the year in Jackson. But no, it's apparently in late March, when the slopes of the in-town ski area, Snow King Mountain, get turned over to snowmobilers.

But this year, the warm temperatures of March created a perverse challenge. One avalanche occurred on the ski slopes and another just outside the boundaries. Organizers of the World Championship Snowmobile Hill Climb decided to cancel the event nine days beforehand.

What do to if you're a hotelier? Frank Lane, general manager of a 46-room lodge, tells the Jackson Hole News&Guide he lowered room rates and scrapped the two-day length-of-stay requirement. He also issued refunds, even though the usual policy requires two weeks notice.

South Lake Tahoe tackles vacation rentals

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – More than 100 people packed city council chambers in South Lake Tahoe to talk about vacation rentals. No conclusions were reached, reports Lake Tahoe News, but some residents argue that vacation home rentals should be banned altogether.

Stepped-up enforcement of existing laws governing noise, trash, and parking is among the proposals. But another suggestion is to give homeowners incentives to use local property management firms as opposed to doing it by themselves through services such as VRBO.

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