Can a ranch sawmill improve forest health in rural Colorado?

Cutting timber on a billionaire’s land could boost the San Luis Valley’s economy.

 

Lots of things about the Trinchera Blanca Ranch are big. Sitting on the east side of the San Luis Valley near La Veta Pass, its 176,000 acres are believed to make it the biggest ranch in Colorado. Its owner, hedge fund manager Louis Bacon, ranks among the richest people in the country. And, after decades of fire suppression and a recent prolonged drought, its forest health problems are huge, too.

Overgrown and insect-infested forests aren't unique to the Trinchera Blanca Ranch, known locally as simply the Trinchera. But its response has been uncommon. Last fall the ranch began seeking state and local approvals for a timber mill that could take wood off its ailing forests. It's currently under construction and slated to open for test runs this fall. If it opens according to plan, the mill could help improve the health of the Trinchera's forests and boost the struggling economy of Costilla County, where it could become the largest private employer. The mill's influence could also extend down the Sangre de Cristos Mountains into New Mexico and to a small part of the San Juan Mountains thanks to its capacity to handle both small diameter timber and larger-scale timber sales.

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Matt Hildner/Pueblo Chieftain

When Ty Ryland went before the Costilla County commissioners for land-use approvals for the mill, he emphasized that the need to heal the Trinchera’s ailing forests was driving the proposal.

Fire suppression, which was common on forests throughout the American West for much of the 20th Century, had increased the density of the Trinchera's stands. Low-elevation forest types that had historically adapted to ground fires had been clogged with fuel and risked being engulfed by more severe burns. A 15-year drought also made the ranch and other regional forests vulnerable to wildfires, like the 2006 Malo Vega Fire, which scorched 13,780 acres on the Trinchera. That blaze forced the evacuation of nearby subdivisions and the temporary closure of U.S. 160.

During the three years after the fire, debris flows off the burn scar also triggered multiple closures of the highway where it heads up the western flank of La Veta Pass. It’s not just fire that afflicts the Trinchera’s forests — insects are a problem, too. Spruce budworm is the main pest on the ranch, and spruce and other bark beetles also kill trees. Spruce, Douglas fir and subalpine fir are all subject to infestations, which can impair tree growth and regeneration.

"We've always had problems with spruce budworm, ever since I can remember," said Ryland, who grew up on the Trinchera and has lived there since 1969. "Concerns about fire have always been an issue."

The ranch has conducted logging and thinning to the tune of about 700 acres per year, which amounted to less than one percent of the ranch's 89,000 acres of forest. But those treatments were limited by the fact that no local mills had the capacity to take more logs off the Trinchera. Nor did they have the ability to handle small-diameter trees, Ryland said.

Now, though, the ranch is in position to pick up the pace of forest thinning and establish a mill. According to Ryland, that’s because of Bacon, a hedge fund manager who sits on Forbes Magazine’s list of the country's 400 richest people, and who bought the ranch in 2007 for $175 million.

Bacon’s presence is felt up and down the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In addition to the Trinchera, he owns a 21,000-acre ranch in neighboring Las Animas County as well as Taos Ski Valley. Roughly half of the timber going to the mill would come off the Trinchera, which would double the amount of treatment to 1,560 acres annually. The other half of the mill's timber feed will come from outside the ranch.

Ryland estimates the mill could take in timber from an 80-mile to 90-mile radius before the cost of hauling the timber would become prohibitive. The mill will have a capacity of 10 million to 20 million board feet per year, depending on whether the mill can sustain a second daily shift. It will also be able to take in trees as small as 5.5 inches in diameter off the ranch, and trees from outside the ranch as small as six inches in diameter.

One big question: whether the Trinchera mill will be able to process enough outside timber to have an impact on regional forest health and employment. Like the Trinchera, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains stretching to the south of the ranch are privately owned.

But that stretch of forest is home to lands that have already been logged or landowners who haven't been interested in logging in the past, said Adam Moore, a district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service. Across the state line, the Sangre de Cristos in New Mexico also contain a good deal of private forest.

Ernie Lopez, a district forester for the New Mexico State Forestry Division, said bark beetles and other infestations haven't reached epidemic levels. Still, the pests, along with crowded stand conditions, are a problem. "In general there's a need," he said. "There's a lot of area that hasn't been thinned."

Should the mill find willing private landowners or successfully bid on a Carson National Forest timber sale, it would have the capacity to handle larger sales. That could be a major boon to the region’s struggling timber industry. "We are very limited in process facilities," Lopez said. "We don't have anything major on the west side of the mountain."

But a new mill is no panacea. Across the San Luis Valley in the San Juan Mountains, the region's most obvious forest health problem won't be healed by the Trinchera mill. Spruce beetles have chewed their way through 588,000 acres of spruce stands on the 1.8 million-acre Rio Grande National Forest. There are almost no spruce stands left for the bug to infest, so thinning would do little to halt their immediate spread.

While some thinning could protect Forest Service campgrounds and roads, the remote, high-elevation spruce forest that often sits just below tree line is not subject to the same density of home building that takes place at lower elevations.

Still, the salvage logging of large-diameter trees that has made up most of the Rio Grande's recent timber program in recent years may convey economic benefits to both the mill and the U.S. Forest Service. Kirby Self, who oversees the national forest's timber program, said if the mill were to begin bidding on the Rio Grande's sales, the added competition could boost auction prices. Past sales on the southwestern corner of the forest have been limited by the amount of wood that existing bidders could handle, Self said. The added capacity of the Trinchera Mill could help increase salvage logging from that section of the forest.

But the mill may make its biggest impacts in the pocketbooks of Costilla County, traditionally one of Colorado's poorest counties. The mill would employ about 40 workers if it operates on a single shift, and up 70 if it can add a second one.

Those figures might not grab headlines in a city. In Costilla County, however, which has just 3,500 residents and the state's fifth-highest unemployment rate at 5.9 percent, the new jobs could make a big difference. Bob Rael, director of the Costilla County Economic Development Council, said the mill would also fill a void left by the 2014 closure of the Chevron molybdenum mine in northern New Mexico. "I think that's going to be an important addition to Costilla County," Rael said.

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.