WEST FORK - The campers braved snowy roads, logging trucks and falling trees last Monday to come see what was happening to their favorite spot in the woods.

Way up the West Fork, they traveled to the Alta Campground where Jim Dunn's family crew at C&L Tree Management were hard at work making the campground safe for next year's campers.

The visitors hopped over downed trees and dodged piles of slash to inspect their choice camping spot. After seeing the loggers had left the best and largest trees in the campground behind, they picked their way back to their car and headed home.

West Fork Ranger Dave Campbell wasn't surprised at all the campers had made the trip deep into the Bitterroot National Forest.

"These campgrounds are very valuable to a lot of people," Campbell said. "They want to know that they are being well cared for."

This winter, loggers are removing mountain pine beetle-killed trees from six popular campgrounds in the West Fork and Sula ranger districts.

The dead and dying trees are considered a hazard. Forest officials also hope that opening the canopy inside the campgrounds will give the remaining trees a better chance of surviving the next wave of pine beetle attacks.

Some national forests have been forced to close campgrounds because the high number of dead trees made the areas unsafe.

Mountain pine beetle attacks in the Bitterroot Forest are on the upswing and all indications suggest the situation will get worse before it gets better.

"I think it's going to be the biggest issue that we face over the next five years," said Bitterroot Forest spokesman Tod McKay.

While other forests in the region have been hit by beetle infestations, McKay said the Bitterroot Forest's diversity of tree species may lessen the impact a bit.

Last summer, forest officials opted to spray single, high-value trees in campgrounds and other high-use recreation areas with the insecticide Carbaryl to keep the bugs at bay. They also used the pheromone Verbenone to confuse the critters.

But McKay said that strategy of protecting trees in the campgrounds can only go so far. It cost the agency more than $20,000 to spray about 2,000 trees last year. And the treatment only protects the tree for a single year.

Thinning trees in the campgrounds allows additional airflow, which makes it more difficult for the beetles to use scent as an attractant. Fewer trees also cuts down competition for nutrients, which can give those that remain a better chance of warding off attacks.

C&L Logging of Darby will thin forests at the Jennings and Martin Creek campgrounds on the Sula District between now and Feb. 4. The same work will be done around the East Fork Guard Station.

If the weather cooperates, the crews will work at the Rombo and Sam Billings campgrounds in March and early April.

The logging company expects to harvest about 400,000 board feet of lumber from the campgrounds over the winter.

At the Alta Campground, the company removed about 200 trees.

In a hardhat and Carhartt bib overalls, 23-year-old Deserie Ives took a few minutes away from her logging chores to talk about the operation Tuesday.

The logging crew is an all-in-the-family affair.

Ives said her father, Jim Dunn, has been logging for decades in between building custom motorcycles at the family's shop south of Hamilton. In the woods, Ives' mother, husband and uncle help out too.

"We all love this work," Ives said. "We get to be outside, which is what we all like."

The operation is hauling house logs to Rocky Mountain Log Homes and saw logs to Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake. The crew also sorts out pieces that would make good firewood and runs whatever is left through a large chipper.

West Fork District recreation specialist Joe Butsick said campers will probably notice the difference next year when they arrive at their favorite campgrounds.

"We've made an effort to keep all the best of the big ponderosa pine and some of the lodgepole too," Bustick said. "Aesthetically, some people like the closed-in feel that comes with lots of trees. Others do like it more open."

"We will have to wait and see what they think about next summer," he said.

The campgrounds are closed while the logging operation is ongoing.

The Bitterroot Forest is also looking at other larger projects in the near future to mitigate beetle infestations at Lost Trail Ski Area, Lake Como and the Bass Creek Recreation Area.

"There are already a lot of red trees out there," McKay said.

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.