DILLON,Colo. -- Cal Wettstein presides over a sea of dead and dying trees the size of Connecticut.
Across his domain, hillsides blanketed with lodgepole pines are in the final throes -- their needles are turning red, or their trunks are tipping precariously to one side. Others are already rotting on the forest floor.
Voracious bark beetles are known for leaving a formidable trail of destruction in their wake, and at this point, there is nothing that can be done to stop them.
As beetle kill incident commander for the U.S. Forest Service, Wettstein is mounting a triage operation for the 3.6 million acres of trees in northern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming that have been bested by the ant-sized insects in the past 15 years.
There are no known methods for saving the trees once they've been hit by the beetles, and removing the dead wood has been slow going. Wettstein's job is to prioritize which trees need to go first before they hurt somebody or become the fuel for an uncontrollable wildfire.
It's not a small job.
Extreme emergencies usually warrant an incident command. Some examples are wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes. The damage wrought by waves of beetle crusaders fits in that category because it poses a serious threat to both ecosystems and people, said Wettstein.
More than 3,500 miles of roads, 1,300 miles of trails and more than 600 miles of power lines cut through the area and could be seriously damaged by downed trees or wildfire, according to Forest Service estimates. That same beetle-kill space overlaps the headwaters for rivers that supply water to more than a dozen Western states and is also home to some of the largest ski resorts in the country; lack of tree cover in these places could accelerate problematic evaporation.
"The infrastructure and resources affected are huge. Pulling together exactly what work needs to be done and prioritizing where the mitigation will be is a big part of what my team does," Wettstein said.
The dead trees, along with hotter and drier climate conditions, raise the risk of more frequent and intense wildfires. Current science states that trees that have turned red and the trees that have fallen to the forest floor make for elevated fire risk.
Meanwhile, there is no possible way to clear out all the dead trees -- logistically because much of the area is roadless, and legally because wilderness protection legislation blocks going into the area and chopping down some of these trees. Then there is a financial obstacle because the costs of attempting to remove them all would be staggering.
But each year, the Forest Service continues to chip away at the problem -- signing contracts for thousands of acres of wood removal.
Beetles learn there is free lunch
A confluence of events first gave rise to the beetle issue, and climate change was in the driver's seat.
Warming weather meant more beetles survived the winter. Meanwhile, the results of previous logging and fires caused the area's pine trees all to mature around the same time. Such seasoned trees are the preferred source of food for the beetles. Decades of fire exclusion policy imposed by the Forest Service also created conditions where the tree stands were more dense.
"Evolution is a beautiful thing," Wettstein said, "and these beetles are adapted to their environment."
When a pine beetle lands on the trunk of a tree, it bores a hole in it -- attempting to take root under the bark. A healthy tree can mount an active effort to pitch the pest out -- producing sap that would ooze out of the beetle-dug hole and hopefully take the beetle outside with it. But trees that have suffered from years of drought or are overwhelmed by a phalanx of intruders -- as these have -- lose their power to resist.
While bugs that munch on tree leaves can be felled by spraying pesticide from the air, these beetles attack tree bark, so aerial assaults miss the mark.
One beetle-combating spray is effective on the ground -- if it covers the entire tree before any beetles get to it. But when an average-sized pine tree might cost $14 to spray -- each year -- and individual trees may be difficult to get to, large-scale prevention is unrealistic.
The prescription for saving forests is keeping them healthy in the first place and making sure stands are diverse enough to maintain forest cover if beetles kill vulnerable trees. While clearing and thinning forests years ahead of attack can help boost trees' immunity, it's now too late to save any local trees as the beetles flit from one tree to the next, Wettstein said.
Pests of mass destruction
On the Front Range, the beetles struck early and hard -- that's why the Forest Service decided to centralize its response there, Wettstein said. Pine beetles have also ravaged another 17.5 million acres in the western United States and have a stranglehold on massive chunks of forests in British Columbia.
While bark beetles have long been part of the natural ecosystem cycle, their current numbers are overwhelming, said Joseph Duda, forest management supervisor for the Colorado State Forest Service. The fear is if that massive number of dead trees catch alight, the fire could also scorch soils and wipe out cones responsible for future generations, he said.
Moreover, the forests are now so homogeneous that the beetles can clear out entire stands and leave little forest cover behind.
Centuries ago, when fires occurred as part of the natural life cycle for the pines, stands were less dense, making resulting fires cooler and smaller. The fires also posed a smaller threat to people -- since not many lived in the forests. Now it's a different story.
Recent events, too, have made Wettstein's job even more of a challenge.
Loggers bidding for Forest Service contracts to clear out beetle kill typically anticipate that a second payday will come from selling the wood, defraying some of their costs. But when the housing bubble popped, lumber demand dropped off and production numbers at Western sawmills tumbled.
Considering there is only one large sawmill in Wettstein's zone, it normally processes much of the beetle-kill wood. But Colorado-based Intermountain Resources LLC defaulted on some of its loans and was forced to shut its doors in May.
The mill, which is currently in receivership, is accepting wood again, but it is only working through about 75 percent of the timber it once did, said Pat Donovan, the court-appointed receiver for the mill.
The wood pellet industry has also taken a dive. Just several years ago, converting beetle-kill wood into pellets that could be used to heat homes or co-fire coal plants was eyed as an ideal way to dispose of some beetle-killed timber.
The recession and cheaper natural gas play a role
But pellet plants in Wettstein's area suffered a blow last year when natural gas prices dropped. Market conditions forced both the Confluence Energy facility and the Rocky Mountain Pellet Company Inc. plant -- then the only pellet mills in Colorado -- to close up shop from December to May. While both plants are open again -- though Confluence Energy is only up at half-mast -- future operations hinge on demand and natural gas prices.
The outlook may not be bright. A fireplace products trade group that tracks how many pellet stoves are sold to retailers (though that may not translate into homeowners buying them) indicates that in 2009 sales were down 67 percent from where they had been in 2008. Making matters worse, the federal tax credit for purchasing pellet stoves -- allocated from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars -- expires at the end of the year.
With less revenue available to offset logging costs, contractors' asking price to clear an acre of beetle kill is on the rise. Where the Forest Service used to be able to find loggers willing to clear an acre of beetle kill for $1,500, now it can cost as much as $3,500 -- meaning the Forest Service can do less with its existing pool of funds.
Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and a coalition of other senators wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this month, asking for $49 million of USDA funds to be rededicated to helping clear beetle-killed trees in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska. The beetle issue, they wrote, should be treated as an emergency.
But even if more beetle-killed trees are felled, reducing fire risk, the timber may not make it very far: About 180,000 piles of unused beetle-kill timber and slash are scattered across the Western Slope -- in need of a buyer.
It can't all be sold, because there isn't enough of an available market. It can't all be burned, because air quality regulations block such action. So it sits, creating a fire hazard of its own, Wettstein said.
"This is a funny way to end my Forest Service career, dealing with millions of acres of dead trees," said Wettstein, 58. Still, he believes that in the long term, the forests will be OK.
"Our forests will look different, sure, but there will be trees. Forests are resilient and always come back."
Clarification: A sentence regarding the science of beetle-killed tree fire risk was omitted from an earlier version in the editing process. The story has been updated to include the sentence.