By Bruce Benninghoff

Consulting Forester

The "Beetle Busters", a dedicated volunteer group, was formed in 2005 to provide Pine Brook Hills homeowners with a free property inspection that was designed primarily to alert residents to pest problems and secondarily to promote an understanding of fire and forest health issues.  In 2005 they inspected 36 properties and found bark beetles, and/or dwarf mistletoe on approximately 30% of those properties.  Suzanne Adams, Boulder Mountain Fire Protection District board member and co-editor of the Pine Brook Press, and Tim Triggs, then Vice President, now President of the Pine Brook Hills Homeowner's Association were the key sponsors and planners of the effort.  The Pine Brook Hills Homeowner's Association and the Boulder Mountain Fire Protection District supported the effort financially.
My involvement with the Pine Brook Hills Homeowner's Association began with consultation on a fuel break project.  In the process of becoming familiar with the community, our discussions covered all the usual topics including wildfire mitigation, bark beetles, dwarf mistletoe, and the reasons why many homeowners are reluctant to take a proactive role in managing their trees.
Two of the reasons, cost and lack of understanding of forest ecology, were deemed to be within our capabilities to do something about.  The first step was aimed at providing a general appreciation of the interactions between forest pests, their hosts, and the historical and current day role of fire in the ecosystem.  I presented these concepts, aided by a slide show, at a home owner's association meeting in the fall of 2004.
The second step was to prepare training material for the volunteers.  The material included: a slide show to familiarize them with the common forest pests that they would expect to encounter in their area, control methods for those pests, a protocol in the form of a flowchart to guide their inspections, and forms to record their findings.  A folder containing the slides printed in color, the flow charts, the recording forms and copies of the appropriate CSU Extension facts sheets was taken home by each trainee for future reference during their inspections.
Three training sessions were offered in 2005.  26 volunteers attended.  The morning session was an indoor session where the slides were used to familiarize the trainees with the pests.   Poster size flowcharts and forms were used to explain the protocol for the inspection and recording.  The afternoon session was a practical field session where we looked for evidence of pests (beetles and dwarf mistletoe), and confirmed their presence by peeling off some bark to see who was present.  The field session also provided the opportunity to discuss the interactions between fire, weather, terrain, beetles, and parasites, and how stand density and species composition affects it all.  The students were encouraged to use a prism to measure basal area so that they got a feel for overstocked vs. understocked stands.  The field setting encouraged discussions of the ecological interactions and seemed to give the theories some real 'take home' meaning.
Only time will tell if the enthusiasm expressed by the volunteers can be sustained.  The biggest threat to the program may be a current paucity of beetles or dwarf mistletoe to find and report.  Of course, that is good news in the short run, but if interest from either landowners or volunteers diminishes, the pests could build up again when environmental factors are favorable and take people by surprise.
This cadre of volunteers is also a valuable asset to the community in that they have a higher level of appreciation for the messages about the need to thin stands for both forest health and wildfire mitigations purposes.  On many inspections they walk the property with the owner and have the opportunity to discuss the findings and recommendations for treatment.  They also make the owners aware of their options for getting the treatments done.  One of those options is to take advantage of the excellent mitigation program conducted by the Boulder Mountain Fire Protection District.  As residents, the Beetle Busters have a degree of credibility that government employees and consultants rarely enjoy.
This cooperative effort between the homeowner's association, and the fire department, supported by a consulting forester, has resulted in a movement toward a community that understands and appreciates a healthy forest that provides less fuel for wildfires, a less hazardous situation for firefighters, and a pleasant environment for residents as well as critters.  It also contributes to sustainable property values.
pitch tubes
Pitch tubes form where the mountain pine beetles bored under the bark to lay eggs.

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