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Utah's spruce forests are vanishing
Beehive State someday could look more like northern Nevada.


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The Forest Service has found that higher temperatures aid and speed beetle production. The Utah Climate Center at Utah State University finds that since 1970 the mercury has risen swiftly when it counts most - more than 3 degrees on average during bug-killing winter lows at a monitoring station at Capitol Reef National Park in southern-central Utah.

A decade of beetles-gone-wild might not spell doom in normal conditions. Big outbreaks have shown up before, and the spruce have rebounded. This time, though, computer models based on society's carbon emissions aren't looking good. They show Engelmann spruce practically blinking out in Utah by 2090, limited to a strand in the High Uintas.

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Most of Utah's high-country spruce, plus the firs that associate with them, are in trouble - even under conservative carbon-emission models plotted by Idaho-based scientists at the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station.

At Brighton, for instance, the mean annual temperature on its spruce-lined slopes is expected to rise by century's end above the 1961-90 "current" norm by a whopping 5½ degrees Celsius.

Such a jump, according to Forest Service projections, would more than double the mountains' growing season to 140 frost-free days, closing in on what exists today thousands of feet downslope in Salt Lake City. It's not spruce country, and, if this scenario plays out, neither would be most of Utah's mountains.

"The future certainly doesn't look good for these alpine species," said Jerry Rehfeldt, a retired plant geneticist who worked on the tree-habitat projections at a lab in Moscow, Idaho. "I think we can say, positively, Engelmann spruce will have a much smaller role in Utah than it does today."

Gradually, Rehfeldt said, dryland species would move uphill while desertification takes hold in the foothills. Utah would look more like northern Nevada.

"The big winner throughout the Great Basin," Rehfeldt said, "is desert scrub."

Something besides climate helped build today's massive beetle outbreaks.

Andrea Brunelle, a University of Utah paleoecologist, studies lake sediments with pollen deposits to determine when trees thrived and when they died.


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Utah pioneers made their mark on the forest, she said, and it's showing now. Starting in the 1850s, they axed trees. In places such as the Markagunt Plateau east of Cedar City, they logged the land bare. The homogenous forest that grew back is filled with a single generation of trees uniformly susceptible to drought and other stresses.

"The magnitude of these outbreaks," Brunelle said, "might be different just because of the historic land-management practices."

For those trying to prune the forest and strengthen what remains, administrative headaches persist. One, in Fishlake National Forest, is a Clinton-era rule that prevents building roads into wild areas. Most of the forest's spruce grow in the roadless high country, Holsclaw said.

"It's more the roadless area than anything else that's the problem child," the forester said. It makes intentional fires the only practical management tool, and those are too dangerous on thick spruce slopes, he said.

Republicans in Congress are trying to overturn the roadless rule, but they face stiff opposition. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a coalition of hunters, blasted the GOP proposal this summer.

Elk and deer need roadless areas, said Joel Webster, the group's Montana-based Western lands director. Without such havens, hunters could deplete the herds.

"If you have too many roads," he said, "critters can't find refuge."

The Forest Service has enough trouble maintaining its existing 370,000 miles of road and has its hands full with forest-restoration work in accessible areas, said Harris Sherman, the U.S. Agriculture Department's undersecretary for natural resources and the environment.

"I don't believe [the roadless rule] complicates this issue to a big extent," Sherman said.

Some environmentalists don't trust the motives for thinning anyway. The Utah Environmental Congress may appeal the planned Teeples timber sale, arguing it's a commercial venture in the guise of forest restoration.

The beetles are nature's way of cleaning house and may boost forest health by giving declining aspens an opening for growth, said Kevin Mueller, the Salt Lake City group's program executive director.

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