Officials: Bark beetle epidemic slowing

The Prescott National Forest has removed 8,150 ponderosa pine trees that bark beetles killed on 511 acres since an epidemic hit the Southwest in 2002, and officials have plans for cutting down about 35,000 more trees on another 1,045 acres.

The next big project is to remove the highly visible mass of dead trees around the flank of Thumb Butte next to Prescott.

About 60 percent to 70 percent of the trees around the butte have died. So the scale of logging there will be something this region probably hasn’t seen since the turn of the century when residents nearly clear-cut the Prescott Basin for buildings, mining and fuel, forest officials said.

The Forest Service is paying Bill Gray $422 per acre to cut down 7,222 dead trees on 273 acres in the Thumb Butte area.

The Prescott Forest is home to 145,000 acres of ponderosa pine with an average of 300 trees per acre, forester Ian Fox said. Overall, it’s experiencing a 30-percent mortality rate, adding up to 13 million dead trees. It’s possible that the Forest Service may be able to find the resources to cut down only about 1 million, he said.

The effort to remove the infested trees, especially around the Prescott Basin, has helped slow the beetle epidemic, Fox said. He cited the Dearing Park area near Prescott as an example.

In another effort to fend off the bugs, the Forest Service has hired Dakota Logging and Timber to remove the slash (tree limbs) as quickly as possible after logging activity. The green slash attracts the beetles, Fox noted.

While Forest Service entomologists still are working on a new report about the epidemic, Fox is hearing that it didn’t spread to new areas of the forest this summer, although it killed off more pines within previously infested regions.

“It’s slowed down considerably since last year,” Fox said.

Emerging research shows that pine bark beetle epidemics last for three or four years but only one of those years generally entails explosive growth, forest health officer Gary Wittman said.

More susceptible areas such as those at lower elevations, on ridge tops and in unnaturally dense pine stands areas were the epidemic’s victims last year, Wittman noted.

Rains slow spread of beetles

Spring rains and a decent monsoon helped the remaining trees this year, he said.

July started the monsoon season off with a bang, bringing 3.47 inches to the official National Weather Service measuring site on the northeast side of Prescott. The 105-year average for July is 2.91 inches.

August and September produced rain below the long-term averages. The Prescott measuring station recorded 2.78 inches of rain in August, historically the month with the highest rainfall. The 105-year average there is 3.29 inches. Other sites registered 5.37 inches on the forest just northwest of Prescott, 2.25 inches in Prescott Valley and 2.45 inches in Chino Valley.

The Prescott measuring station recorded 0.97 inches in September, even further below the 105-year average of 1.74 inches. Other sites registered 0.78 inches on the forest north of Prescott, 0.66 inches in Chino Valley and 0.62 inches in Prescott Valley.

As of the end of September, the Prescott measuring site had registered 13.43 inches this year, which is below the average of 15.14 inches.

Forest officials hope to remove thousands of dead trees near Prescott before the wildfire season arrives in the spring.

For the first time, the Prescott National Forest is paying three contractors to remove trees in an effort to reduce wildfire hazards in special areas. In turn, the contractors must remove all dead trees as small as 5 inches in diameter.

The lack of local markets for the logs is one reason the Forest Service is paying contractors to cut down the dead trees, Fox said. However, the addition of a small mill in Humboldt operated by Dakota Logging and Timber has helped, Fox said.

In the remote Crown King area 30 miles south of Prescott, where it’s been especially hard to attract loggers, the low bid from local resident Gerald Rhodes was $1,140 per acre to remove 4,558 trees on 140 acres. Rhodes plans to erect two sawmills there, Fox said.

The price was much lower at the Lynx Lake Recreation Area, which is much more accessible. Located between Prescott and Prescott Valley, it’s also the most popular spot on the forest. Dakota Hauling and Timber will get $265 per acre to cut down 1,341 trees on 120 acres. That work is scheduled to begin this weekend.

The third contract is the project around Thumb Butte.

“Service contracts are hopefully a one-time deal,” Fox said. “I do not want to pay people to have this removed.”

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