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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carpenter Duane Platt works on a log home at Thousand Lake Lumber in Lyman. The company works with the U.S. Forest Service in timber salvage sales cutting trees, including Engleman Spruce in central Utah for its mill.
Utah's spruce forests are vanishing
Beehive State someday could look more like northern Nevada.
First Published May 21 2012 11:36 am • Last Updated May 21 2012 11:40 am

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune on September 25, 2011.

Fish Lake • Some three-toed woodpecker in these woods is pleasantly plump on beetles, but the buffet can't go on forever. It lasts only as long as the trees.

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The gluttony is written on and around a stocky spruce that looks green and mostly healthy to the untrained eye, except for the fact that it's pecked nude from the waist down.

No bird harmed the tree, though. The damage was already done.

"These trees are loaded with bugs," said Liz Hebertson, a U.S. Forest Service entomologist, down from Ogden to survey this year's spruce-beetle infestation in south-central Utah. Peeling back a neighboring spruce's bark confirms that larvae are maturing, readying for the short flight of their lives in search of new pine prey.

It's nothing new to her. Mountains of Utah's verdant spruce slopes are gone. If climate scientists are right, they might never be back.

After a rain, Utah's high spruce forests evoke the misty Pacific Northwest - unlikely lush islands rising from redrock desert and olive chaparral. Now a complex set of threats conspires to take them down.

One is natural - the beetle with a taste for older trees, aided by a decade of tree-stressing drought. Another is a century of fire suppression that built up fuels to the bursting point. Aiding both those killers is a rising thermometer.

Even if a warmer climate can again support Engelmann spruce - the state's dominant commercial-grade tree - it will be 200 years or more until they grow back to the towering sentinels that 20th-century Utahns knew. In the meantime, subalpine firs may spring up in their place, replacing green for green but not with dollars. Subalpine firs are more brittle - not lumber material.

A lot of people won't take Hebertson's advice and break out the chain saws when spruce needles are still green and inviting. But this woodpecker tree, and every tree around it, will be red by next summer.

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"They're dead," said Fishlake National Forest district silviculturist Terry Holsclaw, "but they just don't know it yet."

This alpine grove, above a flowery meadow at nearly 11,000 feet, is Holsclaw's battleground. Unsure of a climate connection beyond a basic drought, he blames time-consuming battles with environmentalists and restrictions on road building for the spruces' plight. He wants to sell trees faster than beetles can swarm them, thinking of it as a mechanic might an oil change.

Saving some spruce for later is an investment that will pay off if the nation sees another building boom, he said. "That's when you'll want this inventory."

His attitude strikes some as a return to the glory days of the 1980s, when forests around here supplied support timber to coal mines at a dizzying pace and when many distrusted a federal agency they considered recklessly industrialist.

It isn't that way now, Holsclaw said.

Getting chain saws into the forest gives the survivors a greater share of the mountain's water and sunlight, and a fighting chance to create a sticky sap to push out invading bugs.

Here at a proposed 1,300-acre logging site called Teeples, Holsclaw hopes to head off a beetle wave that's been spreading from the east for several years.

"My philosophy is, if you can save it, try to save it," he said. "And if it's dead, capture the value."

It's been a losing battle so far, and science suggests it's a long-run lost cause.

First, there's the insect's physiology and its response to increasing warmth. The cold-blooded spruce beetles in these hills once took two years to mature from the egg and fly on to breed in new trees. In the early 2000s, Hebertson said, forest scientists documented a switch to one-year cycles here, which boosted the population and primed a disaster.

Beetles have taken 2 million acres of Utah forest in roughly that time, the largest share of it spruce. The outbreak started in the 1990s around Cedar Breaks National Monument in southwestern Utah, where Hebertson has seen no evidence of spruce regeneration since.

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