Aspen Die-Off May Hurt Colorado's Economy

fromKUNC

Almost a third of Colorado's aspen trees could be dead in the next few years. The white-barked tree is suffering from what scientists call "sudden aspen decline" or SAD. The die-off troubles environmentalists and business owners. The number of tourists checking out the fall foliage is down this year — partly due to the aspen die-off.

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Many of Colorado's aspen trees are dying. The die-off is troubling not just for environmentalists, but also for businesses that depend on tourists. With its distinctive white bark and golden fall leaves, the aspen tree is emblematic of the American West. Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC reports.

KIRK SIEGLER: Scenery is everything for Jen Stanisick's(ph) business. Her Crystal Valley Manor Hotel is nestled deep in a canyon in the western Colorado hamlet of Redstone. You can see huge swaths of aspen forests from nearly every perch in the hotel.

Ms. JEN STANISICK (Owner, Crystal Valley Manor Hotel): People come from all over for the change of the colors up here.

SIEGLER: Every fall, the aspen's round leaves change from lush green to majestic gold. A cottage tourism industry has grown around the annual changing of the aspen. Each year, this rakes in millions for the state's economy.

Ms. STANISICK: This valley is so sacred, that to lose that would be heartbreaking.

SIEGLER: A lot have already been lost - about 500,000 acres in Colorado. The state is home to the highest concentration of aspens in the West. Most are a product of the mining boom more than a century ago. The trees thrive after major disturbances to the land.

Mayor MICK IRELAND (Aspen, Colorado): You can see aspen mountains from here.

SIEGLER: About an hour's drive up the valley is the town of Aspen. Mayor Mick Ireland is standing beneath tree-cloaked Aspen Mountain, once a silver mine, now the famous ski resort. Ireland says fall foliage tourism has been down this year, partly due to the aspen die-off and also the poor economy.

Mayor IRELAND: It's going to be a real blow. If you looked out north of town at the south-facing slopes and they were all barren, it would be completely different - just a completely different feel.

SIEGLER: Aspens are dying at lower altitudes, particularly on those south-facing slopes. Several have even died in long-time resident Craig Ward's backyard.

Mr. CRAIG WARD (Realtor): (unintelligible). We're good.

SIEGLER: Ward is a former Olympic Nordic racer who now makes his living selling real estate out of the local Sotheby's office. He calls the aspen die-off troubling, but�

Mr. WARD: It's a function of perspective. When I get up and show people what I think is a lousy vista, they say, wow, look at this. And I'm going to myself, geez, this isn't very nice.

SIEGLER: Some scientists say this is just Mother Nature sorting things out. Wayne Shepperd of Colorado State University has spent most of his career studying aspens. He says climate change related stresses like drought could be contributing to the die-off across the West.

Dr. WAYNE SHEPPERD (Colorado State University): It's happening all at once in some areas. It's happening at pretty large scale in some areas. And it's kind of shocking, even to me.

SIEGLER: But Shepperd doubts Colorado will lose all of its aspens.

Back in Redstone, Jen Stanisick says the die-off is still a tough thing to swallow as a hotel owner.

Ms. STANISICK: It concerns me greatly for the future, because I have - I've had a couple aspens in the front that have come down that have been here for 20-something years. And you see what Vail looks like and over the passes with the beetle kill. It's scary.

SIEGLER: Scary because the bark beetle is already expected to kill practically all of Colorado's lodge pole pine trees in the next five years. That, combined with the aspen decline, will radically alter the scenery and no doubt change what most people think of when they picture the Rocky Mountains.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler.

(Soundbite of song, �Rocky Mountain High�)

Mr. JOHN DENVER (Singer): (Singing) He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he'd never been before. He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again, might say he found a key for every door. When he first came to the mountains, his life was far away on the road and hanging by a song.

INSKEEP: John Denver on NPR News.

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