Sustaining Colorado’s forests

A lodgepole seedling amidst salvage beetle-killed timber

Wave of beetle-kill reboots state’s forest products industry

Colorado’s vast stands of lodgepole pines are part of one of the world’s great mountain forest belts, stretching nearly unbroken from Canada to Mexico. The pioneers must have been agog at the amount of timber they encountered, starting with ponderosa pines in the foothills and up into Clear Creek Canyon, then transitioning into lodgepole near the Continental Divide and beyond, to the west.

The forests first grew during an opportune period in Earth’s geological history: Receding ice sheets tilled the Rocky Mountains and provided moisture as the climate warmed after the last ice age. The forests waxed and waned in an intricate evolutionary cycle, adapting to fire, wind, drought and insects — until now.

About 20 years ago, something tipped. Mountain pine beetles swarmed in ever-greater numbers, ultimately killing trees across more than 3 million acres, from the Wind Rivers to Aspen. The forest changed visibly before our eyes, first turning bright red, then brown and gray.

Landscape-level change occurred on an almost unimaginable scale. The swaths of dead trees posed a direct risk to people, raising the fire danger in some areas, and threatening water and recreation values.

Scientists will be studying the beetle battle for years to come, but generally agree that the enormous scale of the insect invasion is linked with a distinct drop in the number of severe winter cold snaps in the last three decades.

The bugs ate themselves out of house and home, like a snake swallowing its tail — eventually, there’s nothing left. In the last couple of years, forest surveys show the bugs are down to endemic numbers in most areas.

Close monitoring of giant study plots in the U.S. Forest Service’s Fraser Experimental Forest shows healthy regrowth both in areas that were clearcut and in areas that were untouched. In the clearcut areas, lodgepole (with some aspen) is once again dominating, while in the unlogged areas, a more diverse forest is regrowing, with more subalpine fir and spruce.

But resource managers are still dealing with the aftermath and also striving to develop sustainable forestry practices targeting the areas affected by the beetles. Even without delving deep into roadless and wilderness areas, long-term stewardship of forest resources on the intermixed zones of private, federal and state lands can provide a sustainable stream of wood.

Spending the money for sustainable forest management based on good monitoring and science should be seen as an investment, and not a cost. Harvesting, processing, selling and using beetle-killed wood can create jobs and help keep forests— and forest fires — more manageable in that tricky Red Zone, where development continues unabated.

With prompting from Colorado’s congressional delegation, long-term logging contracts have helped revive several Colorado sawmills that were teetering on the verge of collapse just a few years ago, and the blue stained logs are finding their way to every corner of Colorado.

As a consumer, you can support a sustainable forestry cycle by using products made with local wood and you can find some pretty cool stuff in the process. In all, there are more than 120 businesses using Colorado wood products and you can search for them at a website maintained by the Colorado State Forest Service: cowood/cfp-database.aspx.

In Glenwood Springs, Meier Skis uses beetle-killed lodgepole and local aspen to build awardwinning skis. In this spring’s ski tests, Meier Skis were praised for offering a light and energetic, chatter-free ride. According to the company’s website:

“By using Colorado forest products to build Meier Skis, [we] are not only providing jobs and helping the local economy, the folks at Meier are making the forest a better place and more sustainable for the future (not to mention building a pretty amazing ski).”

Meier Skis will only use a small percentage of the beetle-killed wood, but a biomass energy plant near Gypsum could take a significant bite out of the flow of salvaged wood. There’s also potential for more energy production. Small towns in the European Alps have developed significant biomass resources with a communal approach.

But still, it’s burning wood, and some question whether that’s a good energy path. Overall, using biomass very locally on a small scale probably has short-term benefits, but only if pursued with a strategy to make the full shift to renewables.

The push for biomass also raises concerns that it could lead to more unwarranted logging, as public investments in utilities drive planning and policy.

In between boutique skis and biomass, there’s a whole range of other products, including furniture that’s custom-designed from beetle-kill timber. Artisans like Loveland-based Ryan Schlaefer have embraced the quirky blue stain to make it a centerpiece of modern Colorado furniture design.

The onset of the beetle-kill epidemic also spurred other businesses. In the hardest hit areas on either side of the Continental Divide, dozens of grassroots tree-removal and protection services sprang up, specializing in backyard-scale projects. Sadly, some of the companies continued to advertise tree-spraying services even after state and federal foresters called for a halt to the application of pesticides when pine beetle numbers dropped dramatically two years ago.

The resurgence of logging does have critics. Some recreational users would rather see undisturbed beetlekilled groves rather than the logging footprint that’s becoming more common in the wildland-urban interface.

And forest conservation advocates worry that the pressure to keep supplying wood to sawmills and biomass energy plants could lead to more logging incursions in remote areas. They say Forest management resources should be focused intensively in the fire-prone exurbs, where creating defensible space around homes and neighborhoods is the only proven effective way to reduce wildfire risks.

All those questions are best answered by a hands-on adaptive management approach. Local, state and federal experts must agree to extensive monitoring to measure forest regrowth, and a willingness to be flexible to respond to changing conditions, with an overall eye toward restoration rather than exploitation.


Previous articleHickenlooper should stay curious about cannabis
Next articleDeported to death