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Beetles and the economy

Jun 23, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

Tree-fall hazards threaten to dent the Wyoming outdoor season

When a Wyoming resident or visitor imagines a mountain hike, a day of fishing or hunting, or a camping trip under the stars, pretty much the last thing anyone thinks about is being injured by a falling tree.

Well, start thinking.

As the evergreen forests of the West are decimated by bark beetles, there are millions of dead trees in the mountains that were alive just a few years ago. And many of them are in imminent danger of falling.

Recreational users of the forests are taught to be alert to falling trees, of course. It's one of the rules of thumb that everyone learns.

But the huge beetle kill of the early 21st is a very different deal. There are so many dead trees, in so many areas favored by recreational users, causing so much risk than existed before, that some unfortunate and drastic decisions have become unavoidable.

Earlier this month the U.S. Forest Service made just such a move, ordering that a couple of very popular forest campgrounds be closed indefinitely. If you were planning to enjoy a night or two in the tent at the Brooks Lake or Pinnacle campgrounds, you'd better make other plans. Those two venues are closed, and no one can say when the might reopen.

This is not based on speculation. A picture of a tree that flattened a tent -- unoccupied, or it would have had an obituary with it -- has been made public recently by the Forest Service. And just a few days ago came word that hiker in Yellowstone National Park was killed by the fall of a beetle-killed tree.

This has become a public-safety issue, and the Brooks Lake and Pinnacle campgrounds are Exhibits A and 1-A. And there is the distinct possibility that there will be more closures to come, because the dead-tree situation will get worse before it gets better.

That would be more than a matter of disappointment and inconvenience. Fremont County's mountain areas are key parts of the summer economy. If campers, fishermen and hikers decide either that the risk is too great or that the campground they want is closed, then there are very real economic impacts as well -- all of them negative.

There is some evidence that the beetle infestation is slowing, although it might be a bit too soon to determine that. Regardless, a lot of damage has been done, and there is no easy resolution at hand.

Loggers are going to get a crack at a lot of these trees, but they probably can't log fast enough to create safer forests for recreation for a considerable time to come. Some say fire will deal with the dead trees in good time, but hoping for a forest fire is a classic be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario.

Dead trees in the great forests of the West are the topic of major scientific research, land-use planning, and public policy debate. None of that is going to help the Fremont County recreation economy this summer. As those bigger issues are tackled, do what you can individually if you go into the forest this summer.

Don't take the warnings lightly. There is deadly danger where the dead trees stand, and it's impossible to be too careful.

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