Several Mount Werner hiking and biking trails have been closed for the remainder of the fall while the Steamboat Ski Area and U.S. Forest Service work to remove dead and dangerous trees before the slopes open to skiers and snowboarders for the winter.
Nine hundred lodgepole pine trees, victims of a mountain pine beetle epidemic, will be removed by resort crews and local contractor Rogue Resources through the end of the month. The removal is a stopgap measure to eliminate the most hazardous trees while the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. and Forest Service develop a long-term mitigation plan for the epidemic that greatly has affected the resort's lower slopes.
"This is going to be mitigation that goes on for several years," said ski area spokesman Mike Lane, who said this year's focus is on trees that have the potential to fall on lift lines, trails and structures. "This one right here is just the hazard trees."
Vice President of Mountain Operations Doug Allen said the resort also is removing the trees whose red tint is most dramatically visible from town. Allen said Rogue Resources is removing the trees from the property and using the lumber as it sees fit.
"It's my hope that over the winter, we will come up with a truly environmentally sensitive plan (for the trees being removed)," said Allen, who guessed the 900 trees being removed this fall make up only 5 percent of the resort's dead lodgepole. "It's going to take several years. My best guess right now is we'll be at this for at least 15 years."
Through a special order of the Forest Service, all hiking and biking trails around the Thunderhead Express chairlift, Rough Rider Basin, Vagabond Saddle, Why Not road, and lower Valley View were closed Monday for the rest of the month. The parking lot near Thunderhead Express and Mount Werner's disk golf course also has been closed for the season.
"For your safety and the safety of the crews operating in the areas, it is imperative that the public understands the dangers associated with this operation and abide by all closures during this special order," Forest Service spokeswoman Kim Vogel said in a statement. "There are plenty of beautiful fall hikes and rides elsewhere on the forest. We'll be glad to help : with alternative recreation opportunities."
Officials have cited the diversity of Mount Werner's forest and said the resort will be impacted less than others in the state. Watching from a window at Ski Corp. offices Monday, Allen said he was amazed at how much yellow-leaved aspen understory was being uncovered as the red-needled pine trees fell. Loggers will take care to protect healthy aspen, fir and spruce trees, according to a ski area news release, including 800 young spruce trees planted in 1996 by Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts in Rough Rider Basin.
"We're very fortunate here in that this is a very diverse forest," Allen said in an interview earlier this year. "We really only have pockets of intense lodgepole. As you look up the hill, you can see red trees, but they're in mixed stands. When the needles fall off the trees, it will be hard to tell a difference."
Although acknowledging the aesthetic impact of the mountain pine beetle epidemic on the resort - and the substantial cost of mitigating it - Allen also noted the opportunity it will present in coming years to create new ski runs on the lower mountain.
The mountain pine beetle epidemic is decimating forests throughout the Rocky Mountain West and already has killed about 2,300 square miles of lodgepole pine forests in Colorado. Left alone, dead lodgepoles typically will fall on their own within 15 years.
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