Stunned by unprecedented megafires, Colorado is embracing logging — mowing holes up to 140 acres in beetle-infested lodgepole pines — in an effort to revive out-of-balance forests.
This for-profit mechanized tree-cutting, concentrated between the blackened Cameron Peak and East Troublesome burn scars, has been clearing 3,000 acres a year.
And state foresters propose to clear more.
At two cutting sites west of Fort Collins recently, hulking red and yellow tractors equipped with whirling hot saws sliced through 12-inch trunks of the towering pines, then as they thumped to the ground raked them into bunches. De-limbers stripped off branches. Hooked pinchers hoisted the logs into bus-sized loads for diesel-belching trucks. Drivers hauled these along icy mountain roads to sawmills at Saratoga and Parshall, where workers convert logs to lumber as a surging national wood-products market pays record prices.
This large-scale cutting creates fire breaks “to give firefighters a place to make a stand” and “take out the energy” from inevitable future record wildfires, Colorado State Forest Service director Mike Lester said.
When lodgepoles grow back, the surrounding broader forests will gain age diversity, with different species such as aspens popping up amid pines on newly-sunlit slopes, Lester said.
“In lodgepole forests, if you want to mimic what happens to lodgepole naturally, you do clear-cuts,” he said. “Lodgepole pines naturally regenerate with forest-clearing fires.”
Colorado traditionally hasn’t had logging on the industrial scale seen in Oregon and other northwestern states, and forest ecologists warn against clear-cuts that accelerate erosion, degrade wildlife habitat and enable increased human incursions.
But state officials now are turning to this large-scale cutting as an alternative to inaction at an especially difficult moment. Across western Colorado, insect attacks on old and drought-enfeebled trees over the past decade have ravaged 5 million acres. Systematic suppression of wildfires, federal land managers’ priority for a century, has led to unnatural thickening.
For years, ecologists and emergency planners have warned that dying, dry and overly-dense forests would lead to massive, ruinous fires. Climate warming has emerged as the trigger, unleashing flames this year that burned across 700,000 acres, including the three largest fires ever recorded in Colorado: the Cameron Peak fire, at 208,913 acres; the East Troublesome fire, at 193,812 acres; and the Pine Gulch fire, at 139,007 acres.
“If we keep doing things as we’ve been doing, this is going to be what we will see,” Lester said.
— “The consequences of inaction”
Colorado’s population growth and development boom, particularly the construction of mountain homes by people compelled to escape cities, complicates the forest imbalance. Houses in woods force progressively more aggressive fire-snuffing, which allows more increased thickening of trees.
A recent state report estimated a $4.2 billion backlog in forest-thinning needed to selectively clear trees and create safety buffers around the most at-risk forest homes. That’s tree removal that state agencies and property owners generally must pay for — in contrast to this industrial logging that brings in revenue when market conditions are right.
Recently, state foresters supervising the cutting of a 100-acre patch on Owl Mountain, within a 376-acre parcel controlled mostly by the federal Bureau of Land Management, pointed to the economics — revenue of about $200,000 to state and federal agencies from loggers. And even if logging wasn’t profitable, every dollar spent removing trees from fire-prone forests would save an estimated $7 in avoided firefighting costs, Steamboat Springs-based forester Carolina Manriquez said.
“Now we have 200,000-acre fires rolling through. What is 100 acres? Nothing at the landscape scale,” Manriquez said. “We need to do more of this. I mean, we’re spending millions to suppress fires.”
Colorado forests that increasingly burn, along with millions of acres where beetle-kill leaves trees unusable, might have helped sustain logging companies, said C.J. Pittington, a Walden-based logger running a 40-ton red feller-buncher clearing a 140-acre chunk of state land recently. He can mow through about 5 acres of lodgepole forest in a day and has built up a business his father began in 1973, currently employing a dozen workers, and expressed hope the big fires will lead to greater social acceptance of large-scale logging.
Logging in forests near sprawling mountain municipalities also will help protect people, Pittington said, referring to the East Troublesome fire’s destruction of 300 homes and other buildings.
“If the U.S. Forest Service would have done something like this behind Grand Lake, many homes there would still be standing,” Pittington said.
Future expansion of logging in northwestern Colorado will depend on industrial capacity, said John Twitchell, the supervisory state forester overseeing the work, who also serves on the state’s forest advisory commission.
“Our logging industry has been small. We haven’t had a lot of users of the wood. Our capacity to use wood will dictate how much work we can do on our landscapes,” Twitchell said.
“We want to re-generate a new, healthy forest. As long as this dead timber is here, inevitably, it is going to fall… and in time it will burn,” he said. “We’ve seen the consequences of inaction. … If we can have more cuts like this, we can accomplish a lot of goals at once.”
— “A storm of threats”
But forest ecologists raised concerns about the logging. Industrial clear-cuts of 40 acres or more widely have been seen as harmful. Lodgepole forests like those in northwestern Colorado play key roles in nature — stabilizing mountainsides that otherwise erode into streams and eventually municipal reservoirs, helping form soil, giving habitat for raptors and other wild animals.
“If it is just willy-nilly punching holes in forests, it may not do any good at all and may make things worse,” said Greg Aplet, a Denver-based senior scientist for the Wilderness Society.
Forest tree-cutting must be done based on large landscape-scale master plans, connected to broad restoration around the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak burn scars, he said. The risk is that Colorado forest officials, once beetle-killed lodgepole pines are removed from state land, will try to expand cutting on private and federal land by “using social concern about fires to grab the social license to conduct more logging without the kind of review and careful ecological analysis that normally would attend large-scale logging,” Aplet said.
“The Wilderness Society isn’t opposed to logging. We’re not opposed to ‘forest management.’ What we are opposed to is bogus science, poorly-planned projects and squandering money that could be spent on treatments that actually improve forest health,” he said. “There is reason to keep sawmills alive — so that we have a destination for the logs that come out of well-planned forest restoration projects.”
University of Colorado Denver forest ecologist Diana Tomback said much depends on how much forest thinning is done and where. When westerners began snuffing wildfires a century ago, this obligated some form of logging to replace disturbed natural processes, Tomback said. But large clear-cuts cause erosion and even standing majority-dead forests can be preferable ecologically, she said.
“A storm of threats” — climate warming, megafires, insect outbreaks and drought — “is converging now to greatly diminish our nation’s once-magnificent forests,” Tomback said, suggesting Gov. Jared Polis should convene a forest science brain trust to develop a strategy.
“This convergence … is new, and we are learning. And the answers may not all be there,” he said. “But we need a methodical approach. We have to sit down and talk about a new forest management paradigm. We don’t want to do things ad hoc.”
Federal forest managers at U.S. Forest Service headquarters weren’t available for comment. A newly-appointed regional director has declined for a month to discuss the overall health of Colorado forests in the face of climate warming, insect infestations and wildfires.
Lester was looking to make that connection. Most of the acres burned this year were in federally-managed forests, he said, urging better “shared stewardship.”
Polis recently proposed spending $6 million for grants to improve forest health, but the scale of work to save dying forests requires far more, Lester said.
“What do we need from the feds? Certainly we need financial resources. And we need to sit down and coordinate what we are going to do. How are we going to get this done?”