Colorado’s forests hold an estimated 834 million standing dead trees that pose a threat of worsening wildfires and degrading vital water supplies that flow from the mountains, officials said on Wednesday.
Roughly one in every 14 standing trees in the state’s beetle-infested forests are dead. The total percentage of dead trees is up 30 percent in seven years, the State Forest Service said in its annual report on forest health.
“Is it something to be alarmed about? Of course, it is,” State Forester Mike Lester said. “When they have this condition, you should be paying attention to it.”
The major infestation of the mountain pine beetles and spruce beetles in the forests are the main cause for the die-off, Lester said. Although the beetles are native to the state, they have caused more damage than normal over the past 20 years. In the past 20 years, the beetles have attacked more than 7,900 square miles of forest, which is more than 20 percent of the total forested land.
Lester and others attribute the beetle outbreak to a combination of warmer weather. The warmer weather allows the beetles to survive the winter and the trees that are leftover are more vulnerable.
The pine beetle epidemic has subsided, meanwhile, the spruce beetles are still spreading. The course of the beetle outbreak will determine the future of the tree die-off, Lester said.
“I really couldn’t predict,” he said. “We’re not sure where the spruce beetle is going to go right now.”
The report noted that the combination of standing and fallen trees that have died off due to the beetles, will only make the wildfires in the area burn longer and in some cases, hotter. This only makes the fires harder and more expensive to control, putting more firefighters in more danger, the report said.
The wildfires threaten the water supplies by posing a threat of causing erosion on the hillside. Erosion on the hillside can pollute the runoff that is used as a water supply.
It is estimated that 80 percent of Colorado’s population relies on runoff from the forested watersheds, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Colorado is working with federal and local governments and with private landowners to thin out forests that are too dense and already fire-prone.
Colorado is not the only place where dead trees pose a threat. Dead trees are also posing a threat in California, where the drought has killed more than 102 million trees, the U.S. Forest Service said.