The Little Bug That Could Ruin Ski Season and Is as Destructive as Wildfires

Lucy Sherriff
·9 min read

When pine beetles descended on the Colorado Rockies in their droves a few years ago, they stripped the state’s lush forests bare, turning the region’s green blanketed mountains into a ghost town of spindly, dead trees.

The ski resorts, which tourists flocked to for their picturesque tree-lined runs, panicked.

“The ski resort industry knows a secret,” says Nick Gromicko, founder of the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI). “Many people, me included, don't go to ski resorts just to ski. We go for the scenery.”

Gromicko was called upon by vacation resorts desperate to find a solution to the alpine massacre that was unfolding before their eyes.

Pine beetles were chomping through forests at an unprecedented rate: sometimes up to 100,000 trees a day.

Western North America has seen some 100,000 square miles of forest destroyed by the insects over the past two decades, while bark beetles—the species the pine beetle belongs to—have decimated at least 46 million of the United States’ 850 million acres of forest, and show no signs of relenting.

“When pine beetles attacked Colorado a few years ago, the ski resort towns were begging us to do something,” Gromicko, whose company has seen an uptake in clients requesting pine beetle control services and advice, recalls.

“They were upset that the views from the lifts were ugly with all the pines being brown, and were worried that part of the reason people ski is for the views of the mountains,” Gromicko added. “They were correct.

“Who wants to ride a ski lift up through a bunch of dead, brown trees, or worse, ones that have been cut down because of the beetle kill?”

Vail and Breckenridge, both in Colorado and owned by the Vail Resorts chain, were two of the resorts seeking advice, but neither were willing to comment to The Daily Beast.

The mountain pine beetle used to be killed off by Colorado's cold winters. Now, thanks to warmer weather, the beetles have run rampant on forests, destroying valuable ecosystems—and posing a big problem for the state’s tourism industry.

The pine beetle is so destructive to America’s forests, the USDA holds it on par with fire. Some experts also suspect the pine beetles may have a part to play in why this year’s fires have been so ravaging.

But, it’s not just Colorado that’s suffering from the scourge.

There have been multiple knock-on effects, including Yellowstone grizzlies struggling to find pine cones to eat; a change to the watershed system in an area that produces so much of America's water; and even exacerbating California’s devastating wildfires. Over in Michigan, officials are so worried that they’ve placed a quarantine on any forest product containing bark coming in from western states.

“We’re taking the necessary, proactive steps to ensure our pine resources are here for generations to come,” said a Department of Agriculture official.

And the pine beetle is causing economic problems too.

In a 2017 study, scientists found that by the middle of the 21st century the southern pine beetle would expand into “vast areas of previously unaffected forests throughout the northeastern United States and into southeastern Canada”.

“This scenario would pose a significant economic and ecological risk to the affected regions, ” the report, titled ‘Threats to North American forests from southern pine beetles with warming winters’, continued.

Corey Lesk, one of the co-authors of the report, said he couldn’t see how pine beetles wouldn’t affect tourism.

“People generally do not appreciate the way dead forests look. I think places like Cape Cod would definitely lose some aesthetic appeal to tourists if the pitch pines turned brown. Other unpleasantness could follow the dead trees, as well. For example, a quick die-off of trees could ruin water quality in swimming or boating waterways, because living roots are what keep soil in place.”

There’s a significant economic risk, Leak continues, “right now”.

The tourism industry is already experiencing the economic disruption the report describes.

For ski resorts, the pine beetle is just another challenge for an industry that’s already struggling with the repercussions of climate change. The ski industry is worth $20 billion, and has seen the length of the snow season shrink by 34 days, due to a decrease in snowfall.

Now they’re waging a battle on another front: against the insect that’s smaller than a grain of rice.

Bill Crapser, Wyoming State Forester, told The Daily Beast over the last 15 years the state has seen about 4.5m acres of forest impacted “to some extent” by the mountain pine beetle, considerable given that Wyoming only has about 12m acres of forest.

“The hunting industry has seen the biggest impact,” he said. “There are a lot of people who come from out of state to hunt. The pine beetle’s damage to the forest has changed wildlife habits, and therefore hunter habits.”

He added although the impact on tourism is a given, it would be “hard” to measure.

A study on the visual impact of the beetles’ destruction, released in 2017, highlighted the potential impact on tourism. “Forest-based outdoor recreation and tourism are significant industries in North America and Europe that have the potential to be threatened by bark beetle outbreaks, resulting in loss of revenue to providers and local communities,” the report read.

Ignatius Cahyanto, assistant professor of Hospitality Management at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, co-authored a paper focusing on the impacts of the mountain pine beetle in the Black Hills region in South Dakota.

“The tourism industry told us they had lost business because of the destruction caused by the beetles,” Cahyanto said. “We interviewed more than 50 individual businesses, as well as visitor bureaus. And they’re frustrated that they haven’t been included in discussions to resolve the problem.”

Cahyanto said departments of tourism tended to “downplay” the issue, as do larger tourism chains.

But small businesses have been working together to raise funds to pay for tree thinning, and other tactics to prevent the beetle spread.

A group of restaurants in Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota, grouped together and created a cookbook, the sales of which went towards stopping the insect’s spread.

Over in Canada, the tourism board for Jasper is even offering pine beetle “adventures”, for those who are wondering: “Why are there so many dead trees in Jasper?”

“If you're asking yourself this question,” the board continues on its website, “then this is the activity for you.”

“The more the area depends on tourism dollars, the more worried business owners are,” Cahyanto noted. “Tourism departments have not admitted that pine beetles cause an issue for the tourism business.”

The beetle is a hardy pest: it takes weeks of continuous 20-25 below zero temperatures to wipe them out, a condition impossible for humans to replicate in extermination methods. The trees themselves also attempt to stave off the beetle, by drowning the invader with resin.

But thanks to more hospitable temperatures, beetles are also moving into high elevation areas, targeting old and already diseased trees.

Curbing the spread of the beetle is a race against time; warmer average temperatures allow beetles to complete their life cycle in just one year, instead of two, while past fire suppression practices means a large amount of pines in the Colorado Rockies are of similar mature ages, providing an ample feast.

Grand County was one of the epicenters of the mountain pine beetle epidemic in Colorado, losing up to 90 percent of its mature forests.

Although the problem peaked in 2006 to 2008, the landscape remains scarred.

“Some businesses had been concerned about what the epidemic would have on tourism,” said Ryan McNertney, acting supervisory forester at the Colorado State Forest Service.

“A lot of people were trying to do thinning and other treatments to minimise the impact, but the size and scope of the pandemic meant it didn’t work.”

In Frisco, a municipality in Colorado, that’s home to four ski resorts, including Breckenridge, residents say the epidemic has a “significant impact”.

Speaking to The Daily Beast, local Vanessa Agee said it “greatly changed the look of that area”, which plays host to two campgrounds, a bike park, a winter tubing hill, a beginner ski/ride hill, and miles of trails.

Pete Swenson, trails manager at the Frisco Nordic Center ski resort, said the impact had been “both emotional and economical”, but the town had adopted a lemons into lemonade approach.

“At first, it was difficult to accept that our landscape would never look the same in our lifetime,” he said. “Then it became clear that in areas like the Frisco Peninsula Recreation Area, there would be a significant financial cost to removing diseased and dead trees.

“The expanded views after the tree removal significantly changed the feel of hiking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing on the Peninsula.”

Swenson said the area was now seeing the benefits of the forest change, and the community had capitalized on the chance to improve the trail network.

Other businesses, McNertney said, even tried wrapping the trees with plastic to try to bake the beetles out, or using a chainsaw to try to remove the bark to save the tree.

“I don't know if we could ever have stopped this but we could’ve minimised the scale,” McNertney added.

“It would’ve been 30 to 40 years of hindsight that we would be needing to do more of. We don’t have species or age diversity, that’s why so much of the forest died. We would’ve been needing to do forest management treatments for decades before this.”

When asked if other forested areas in the US should be worried, McNertney replied, “Yes”.

“For areas that don’t have a diverse forest, there isn’t really anything they can do.”

Forest management, Corey Lesk added, is a “band-aid solution, either to detect and remove infested trees or prevent new forests from getting infested, both of which are costly”.

“It's not totally clear whether these band-aids will even work long term.”

Lesk feels the future isn’t bright for the tourism industry.

“My hope is that forests will adapt to the new pests. It might be ugly for a while, but forests can be resilient.

“Unfortunately, that ugly period might be long enough to wreck some tourist industries.”

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