WENATCHEE -- If you have driven over Blewett Pass on Highway 97 lately, you might think the whole forest is about to die, or huge chunks of it, anyway.
It is not the only place in north central Washington where western spruce budworms are chewing up green Douglas and grand fir needles and spitting out rusty-red remains.
More than 373,500 acres of forests across the state -- but mostly in Chelan, Okanogan and Kittitas counties -- were defoliated by the worm last year.
That number will jump to more than 500,000 acres this year, said Karen Ripley, forest health manager for the state Department of Natural Resources.
In 2002, the worms ate up only about 50,000
There is no doubt about it -- we are in the middle of a budworm epidemic.
The good news is, it is not as bad as it looks.
"More of those trees will survive than you think," said Connie Mehmel, entomologist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
Sure, some of the trees will die, Mehmel said. But mostly the smaller ones. And that can produce a healthier forest, more like the Ponderosa pine-dominated forests of the past.
A study in Oregon's Blue Mountains found that only 1 percent of large trees died after a budworm outbreak, and only 6 percent of trees with a diameter between 5 and 10 inches.
Mehmel said it may look like budworms are eating the whole forest in some places. But they are really only consuming the new growth on specific kinds of trees.
Despite their name, spruce budworms are more often found in stands of Douglas fir and grand fir.
They also eat spruce, and will munch on subalpine fir and western larch, but don't prefer them. And, they don't eat pine trees.
The budworm is native to this area, and its outbreaks usually last about 10 years, Mehmel said.
Two other widespread outbreaks are documented in North Central Washington since state and federal agencies began keeping track -- from 1943-48, and again from 1970-82.
Major outbreaks are cyclical, but there's no way to know whether we've reached this outbreak's peak, she said.
Ripley said judging by her first look at this year's aerial survey maps, some relief already is coming to Chelan County and the western parts of Okanogan County "But it's still very intense between Wenatchee and the Cascade Crest," she said. "Even though it's tapered off in some areas, that will be offset by the increases toward central and eastern Okanogan County and Ferry county."
So, what are the options when it comes to dealing with the western spruce budworm?
"You can do nothing -- because all insect outbreaks eventually run their course," Mehmel said. "You can spray. ... Or you can do silviculture -- thin the trees and remove the ones that are susceptible to budworm."
Mehmel and Ripley said when it comes to state and federal forests, there are just too many acres to treat everything.
But for areas that are accessible and where the objective is to have some kind of treatment, thinning is preferable, for a few reasons.