Seeing the (overcrowded) forest for the trees


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

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 RestorationStewardship Contracting, and theHazardous 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 dothinning 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.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Beetle kill image in Northern Colorado courtesy USGS

Black and white photos of the 1910 burn courtesy State of Idaho

Image of a healthy forest after a prescribed burn courtesy USFS

Justin Ziegler
Justin Ziegler
Jul 21, 2012 04:17 PM
Great article. I am interested in seeing how CFLRP grants play out, as some recipients are still in the early phase and have yet to put boots on the ground. As well, there is still contested ideas of how restoration looks and whether or not it does address risk of insects/pathogens or fire hazard.
Personally, it is a shame that the USFS' decision in the past to substantially slow harvesting in Colorado has led to timber industry decline. How will slash be treated given the increased distruct in prescribed fires after the North Fork escape and will it be ecologically appropriate?
I would appreciate more indepth reporting on efforts in Colorado if you decide to so.
Also, it should be kept in mind to be clear on what forests are considered "overcrowded" and in need of restoration (i.e. lodgepole stands should likely not be included).
Gail D Storey
Gail D Storey
Jul 22, 2012 04:15 PM
I appreciated this thoroughly researched post--explained the complexity of the issues and provided the context I need to support forest health. Thanks!
Franklin Carroll
Franklin Carroll
Jul 23, 2012 07:21 PM
The agony I feel reading this is almost more than I can bear. Or lynx. It makes me want to owl. You describe the 22 million acres affected in the West by mountain pine beetles (excluding the 44 million in Canada) and then you describe the haggling over a few million board feet of logs produced on a few thousand acres of the dead lands of Montana, forests completely eaten by beetles, soon to be folloowed by fire the likes of which we will not see again for many generations, perhaps a couple of hundred years. We don't even know what the next forest will look like at this point, climate change or not. What's the point of whether you can support a few paltry Forest Service projects in Montana where there is no timber industry, where cutting a few thousand acres of trees is without significance, where there is no economic reason to support what you finally see as work that would have resulted in more healthy forests. I can't think how many times I wrote about the 30 to 70 trees per acre where now thousands lie dead, victims not of pine beetles but of ignorant bickering over lynx and spotted owl habitat now destroyed by your intransigence. Doesn't it make you cry to think how your success in stopping sustainable forest management in the West has now reduced the very thing you loved to a vast dead blanket of dead vegetation that will rapidly convert to carbon causing fundamental changes to your view of what constituted beautiful living forests and watersheds into...what? Generations now living will never know. It is not interesting that the Wilderness Society is backing the FS project to treat 8,000 acres. We just suffered a 10,000 acre mind altering fire in South Dakota. Any progress you could make on 8,000 acres is laughable. Living forests are great sponges and filters, there for a reason. Dead forests are just dead, victims of human neglect in the name of environmental responsibility. What was it you hated about the families, companies, and industry that gave life and productive meaning to the West of the past? How can yu pretend now that less than a quarter of 22,000 acres of 22 million dead has any meaning whatsoever? I am ashamed for us all. The CFLRP is so small and insignificant that it hardly merits a mention in this magazine. And your goofy (sorry, but it's really goofy) assertion that you're still holding back on whether you might support any project under CFLRP depending on its effects on wildlife is sad beyond belief. What about the destruction of that habitat wrought by beetles and fire? Is there no shame? Where is your mea culpa followed by your full and unequivocal support of thinning trees where there are still trees left to thin on millions of acres, not thousands of zombies or red dead snags? Heaven help us.
Ann Harvey
Ann Harvey Subscriber
Jul 29, 2012 10:56 AM

This article is riddled with myths, inconsistencies, and unsubstantiated claims. On what scientific basis are you claiming that a “healthy” forest has 30 trees or fewer? Thirty trees per acre sounds like a savannah, not a forest. Does this apply to southwestern ponderosa pine, northern Rocky Mountain mixed conifer forest, northwestern Douglas fir forests, lodgepole pine forests, aspen forests, or, as you imply, all western forests? Have you ever noticed that different ecosystems have different forest types? Have you ever noticed that density and species of trees vary across a landscape, depending on soils, aspect, elevation, water availability, stand age, climate, and other ecological factors? To make a blanket assertion that 30 trees per acre is “healthy” (and that therefore forests with higher numbers of trees per acre are unhealthy) is absurd.

You parrot the common claim that it’s due to fire suppression that western forests are now “overstuffed” with trees, and “unhealthy stand density” is what causes big fires. You describe an idyllic past when “Western forests were parklike with native grasses and wildflowers bathed in pools of light that easily penetrated the canopy.” Again, what data are you relying on for such a sweeping statement? If western forests were so perfectly open, parklike, and sparsely treed before fire suppression, then why did the Great Burn fire of 1910 burn millions of acres? Your article states that the 1910 fire galvanized the US Forest Service to begin its fire suppression policy—which would seem to imply that effective fire suppression was not in place before then and therefore could not be the cause of the forests being flammable in 1910.

Rocky Mountain forests have been burning for thousands of years. Beetles have been a component of forest ecosystems for thousands of years. Somehow these forests managed to look after themselves without extensive human thinning and manipulation for thousands of years. It’s arrogant as hell to think that we can and must go out and thin 120 million acres to make forests “healthy and resilient,” as defined by human preferences. And then what? A decade or two later, when the understory has grown back and created highly flammable surface fuels, do we go treat the 120 million acres again? And again a decade after that, ad infinitum?

Maybe a little humility is in order here. Past fire managers were certain they were doing the right thing by suppressing fires, but now we view them as misguided. Current fire managers are certain they must thin millions of acres, regardless of forest type, historic fire regime, or ecological impacts, in order to make forests “healthy.” I suspect that decades from now, many of the massive thinning projects that so enchant us will be viewed as supremely misguided, and that the healthiest forests will be the large tracts of unmanipulated wildlands that managed to escape the managers’ saws.

Franklin Carroll
Franklin Carroll
Jul 30, 2012 11:05 AM
Ann Harvey - you're probably right. I just wandered again through the latest 10,000 acre fire at Myrtle Mine south of Custer. It was a fuel dominated fire, little wind, and left a patchwork of dead and living trees (mostly dead). It will be again the landscape Custer and later commenters and journalists spoke of or photographed. On the other hand I just walked out in my own yard and there is only one beetle hit tree out of 266 in the neighborhood, at least so far. I am beginning to think of the human element in the forest in terms of one back yard at a time. I call it Emerald Islands. My backyard will be here and growing with its 400 year old ponderosa pine after the pine beetles are gone. Part of the reason is that I am thinning and maintaining a fire-worthy forest and part is because I spray my trees, but another part has to do with the centuries of bugs they already weathered. So, yes, the Western forests are riddled with cancer and, yes, the wheels are coming off the wagon and maybe they're supposed to, but not without a fight where I stand, in my back yard.

As for data about the incredibly complex ecology of living western forests, especially dry forests, no one is advocating thinning lodgepole or Doug fir. We know what we know and we've seen what we've seen and generations of foresters and firefighters and lovers of the land know that when fires were like air and water and soil, ubiquitos, constant, churning through time and space, things were different and healthy. Machines cannot turn vegetation to carbon and nitrogen or sweep the forest floor or leave new life in all its abundance. So, we suffer the fires and must learn to be responsible for the things we control. Takes work to live out here.
Ann Harvey
Ann Harvey Subscriber
Aug 04, 2012 10:24 AM
Thanks for the comment, Franklin. Actually many people are advocating for thinning lodgepole pine and Douglas fir. In my region, the Forest Service is proposing tens of thousands of acres of thinning and burning projects in mixed lodgepole-Douglas fir-subalpine fir-Engelmann spruce forest, regardless of the historic fire cycles. The "ponderosa pine" model, flawed as it is, is being applied across the board to many forest types. And the claim that "fire suppression has led to unnatural levels of fuel buildup" is applied across the board too, regardless of ecological realities.