MOST OF THE UPPER WATERSHEDS ON BLUE VALLEY RANCH ARE COVERED IN CONIFEROUS FORESTS.
Composed predominantly of lodgepole pine (Pinus contortus), these several thousand acres also include a mix of other species like aspen (Populus tremuloides), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) and blue spruce (Picea pungens). While species diversity in the understory can often be pretty low, particularly beneath dense lodgepole pine stands, these forests provide critical habitat to many wildlife species. Northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), for instance, require old-growth forests for nesting, while big game species like elk use forests for thermal cover and shelter to escape from predators.
The Rocky Mountain pine beetle has been the most influential, and noticeable, environmental issue to impact Blue Valley Ranch in the last 20 years. While often characterized as an epidemic, the proliferation of the pine beetle is simply the result of a native insect fulfilling its ecological niche; attacking entire watersheds full of un-managed, overly mature forests that have been stressed by extended drought and changing climatic conditions. While the wave of pine beetle damage in Grand and Summit Counties is essentially over, there are many other insects that impact many other tree species, and forest management must continue to address these threats over the long-term.
THE BEST MANAGEMENT STRATEGY TO MITIGATE INSECT AND DISEASE DAMAGE TO TREES IS TO PROMOTE HEALTHY FORESTS THAT ARE RESISTANT TO STRESS LIKE EXTENDED DROUGHT.
While Blue Valley Ranch’s forestry program initially focused on introducing some age-class diversity, reducing fuels that could encourage wildfire, and improving species diversity and soil moisture, the appearance of the pine beetle forced a shift in the ranch’s goals towards promoting forest regrowth. As the insects killed acres of lodgepole pine in just a few short years, an aggressive forest treatment program used a combination of clear-cutting and thinning to naturally re-seed lodgepole pine and promote new saplings. Additionally, planting other tree species like Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce helped reach historical species compositions more quickly. Essentially, the ranch has tried to give nature a jump-start on growing a new forest.
The difficult part of habitat treatments in coniferous forests is planning your work on ecological time-scales of decades to centuries. Most of the work that is done now will not reach full fruition for 50 years or more and it is hard to be patient while looking at acres of red, dead trees. However, even the young, regenerating forest that the ranch has managed to promote in the last two decades will need continued management over the next two. This will ensure that the conditions that lead to this pine beetle epidemic are not repeated in future generations.
TIMELY MITIGATION EFFORTS HAVE RESULTED IN HUNDREDS OF ACRES OF RE-GROWING FOREST AND INCREASED AGE-CLASS DIVERSITY.
In some places, the number of stems were well over 1,000 per acre, which will, of course, need to be thinned over time to achieve a healthy forest in the next 20 years. Untreated stands of lodgepole, however, are regenerating as well with stem counts of 200 stems per acre. This is promising, as the treated areas will quickly develop into young healthy patches of forest while the untreated areas will get there more slowly. In the meantime, even stands of dead or dying timber continue to provide wildlife cover and habitat.
Additional monitoring of timber treatments has documented a doubling in the species diversity of grasses and forbs, as well as an increase in forage production from under 500 lbs per acre to over 2,000 lbs per acre in just 4 years. While this burst in productivity of understory forage will drop again over time as young trees grow taller, it provides improved habitat for many species of wildlife and livestock for many years.