Seeing the overcrowded forest for the trees

Posted: Oct 23, 2017

I was wandering around Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) last week, absorbing the cooling sight of snowfields and the 30-degree temperature drop earned by more than doubling my elevation from Boulder. On my way along Trail Ridge Road, I stopped at the Farview Curve overlook on the west side of the park, so named because you’d swear on a clear day you could see the Golden Gate Bridge from there. The tantalizingly-named Never Summer Mountains look like stone-faced sentinels watching over the Colorado River, just a glimmering ribbon from here, as it drops into the lush Kawuneeche Valley.

Because I like to hear what other people think of such remarkable sights, I was eavesdropping on a mother and daughter standing nearby. The young girl asked her mom, “Why are all the trees changing color when its summer?” The observant child had noticed the reddish-brown beetle-killed pines that stretch like an angry scar across the landscape. When her mom responded that they must need some rain, I didn’t have the heart to say they’re actually dead; that this view will be very different in the years to come.

It was on the west side of the park the effects of the mountain pine beetle on the these forests first appeared. Now, all over RMNP, felled trees have been reduced to logs and stacked in pyres like giants’ bonfires ready to be set alight. These 10,000 or so slash piles are the product of several forest thinning and hazardous tree mitigation projects aimed at both improving forest health and getting rid of beetle killed trees, especially ones close to campgrounds and other areas frequented by people. But conditions were poor, too warm and dry, for the park service to burn the stacks, and so they sit.

As those of us who have been charting the relentless advance of the bark beetle over the past decade know, winter temperatures haven’t been cold enough to kill beetle eggs and larvae that have infiltrated trees. A prolonged drought has further weakened the trees’ resolve. The current epidemic now extends from the Yukon Territory down into New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, having killed nearly 22 million acres of trees in the Intermountain West alone (more than three-quarters of which are on U.S. Forest Service (USFS) land).

One factor which increased the susceptibility of lodgepole and ponderosa pines to the beetles is a problem that grew over many years but cannot—for the sake of safety, property and the health of our watersheds—take long to undo. A century of putting out fires resulted in forests overstuffed with fuel, and the beetles traveled efficiently through the dense stands of trees. While a healthy acre of forest may have 30 trees or fewer, some now have 10 to 100 times that many.

The USFS policy of fire suppression had an early and ironic start. In convincing Congress of the need for national forests, and for a service to administer to them, the agency’s first head, Gifford Pinchot, told them that securing public land and then suppressing fires there would serve to protect public property. It was a persuasive argument in a time when wildfire was about the only thing left in the West that settlers hadn’t killed or wrestled into submission, and still feared. The need was galvanized not long after that when, in 1910, during a dry, windy summer crackling with lightning, many small fires grew into the largest wildfire in U.S. history. The Big Blowup, as it was dubbed, consumed 3 million acres in Montana, Idaho and Washington (that’s 35 times the size of the recent High Park fire near Fort Collins). At least 85 people were killed, five towns were reduced to cinders and much public land that Pinchot had fought to set aside, was incinerated.

Given the severity of the past few wildfire seasons, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine such a scenario playing out today. The USFS has been steadily thinning swatches of forest, particularly in the wildland-urban interface, over the past decade—through Integrated Resource Restoration, Stewardship Contracting, and the Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program. But, with an estimated 120 million acres of U.S. forests still needing restoration to be healthy and resilient (to fire, climate change and beetles), more aggressive thinning schemes and resources are needed.

But the push to thin forests while boosting timber production has created a conundrum for many conservationists, including myself, who are wary that the programs could be giving a “new name to an old saw.” A report released earlier this year, Increasing the Pace of Restoration and Job Creation on our National Forests, estimated that new ‘restoration’ activities would increase the amount of logged forest sold in 2014 to 3 billion board feet, up from 2.4 billion board feet in 2011.

Montana, where forest service officials expect to sell about 14.5 million board feet of timber this year (an increase of 5 million board feet from 2011) has seen some of the most recent large timber sales, as well as some of the most notable challenges to accelerated forest harvesting. Bitterroot National Forest officials were reportedly relieved when they settled the Lower West Fork timber sale, and for more than the asking price, which will draw 4.5 million board feet (mbf) of lumber from nearly 1,200 acres of forest. The main purpose of the sale, says the USFS, is to reduce the possibility of crown fires (which travel across the tops of tree canopies) the risk of which is greater in beetle-killed forests where the trees have not yet dropped their needles.

While there’s been no legal challenge to the Lower West Fork sale yet, others have experienced ongoing battles. In the Gallatin National Forest, the agency wants to do thinning on 4,800 acres, in order to protect a potential wildfire from sullying Bozeman’s drinking water, 80 percent of which is supplied by drainages in the proposed area. Opponents say the project would disrupt grizzly and lynx habitat, reduce elk cover and potentially pollute trout creeks.

In a case involving Lolo National Forest, the 2,038-acre Colt Summit Project (which is part of the 1.5 million-acre Southwestern Crown of the Continent restoration project) was contested on the same grounds. A few weeks ago, a U.S. district judge struck down 11 of the 12 counts but sided with the four conservation groups that were suing on one—that the USFS violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not studying the cumulative effects of the proposed project on lynx, a threatened species. Whether or not this analysis will derail the project entirely is hard to say but what’s interesting about this case is that the Wilderness Society and the Montana Wilderness Association fought alongside the forest service to move the project ahead.

In the face of the enormous challenges posed by unhealthy stand density in Western forests, this is part of an ideological and practical shift toward large-scale collaborative management. This is due, in part, to an initiative the USFS put in place in 2009. The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) is currently being field-tested to identify and address restoration needs. In an analysis of its first year, in which it funded 10 national forest projects, the CFLRP created over 1,500 jobs, improved 66,000 acres of wildlife habitat, restored 28 miles of fish habitat, produced 107 mbf of timber, and reduced “mega-fire” fuels on over 150,000 acres. These stats, along with the recognition of our ailing forests and the risks they pose, makes it one of the few federal projects with tremendous bi-partisan support. Funding for the CFLRP increased from $10 million in its fledgling year to $25 million in FY 2011 and $40 million in FY 2012.

Before a final directive is drafted for the CFLRP, the public will have an opportunity to comment on the program. If it comes to bear that there is at least as much emphasis on improving fish and wildlife habitat and water quality as there is on producing board-feet of timber, and it’s based on good science, then I’ll support it. There may be times when “boutique” thinning will be necessary in areas where proposed logging or prescribed burning imperils critical habitat or old-growth forest, but these must not slow the momentum of large-scale projects; we simply do not have that luxury.

When Lewis and Clark advanced across the West in the early 1800s, they described Western forests that were park-like with native grasses and wildflowers bathed in pools of light that easily penetrated the canopy. A century later, that Great Burn of August 20, 1910 was described by witness Betty Goodwin Spencer in this way: “The forests staggered, rocked, exploded and then shriveled under the holocaust. Great red balls of fire rolled up the mountainsides. Crown fires, from one to 10 miles wide, streaked with yellow and purple and scarlet, raced through treetops 150 feet from the ground. Bloated bubbles of gas burst murderously into forked and greedy flames.”

While it saddened me to look out over those thousands of beetle-killed pines in the  Kawuneeche Valley last week, and upon the many more in our national forests, I recognize that our public lands are undergoing a profound transformation whether or not we would have chosen it. At this point, we must strike a balance between what Lewis and Clark saw, and what Spencer witnessed, and we have to work together to do it.

~Heather Hansen

Copyright © 2017 Red Lodge Clearinghouse. All rights reserved.