New ways to work in the woods

  In mid-October, an extraordinary group of people gathered in Ouray, Colo., below the already snow-corniced ridges of the San Juan Mountains. It was the annual meeting of the National Network of Forest Practitioners, a group that was founded in 1990 as an alternative to professional foresters’ groups, whose emphasis was mainly on making money for mills and timber companies.

Luis Torres, a longtime High Country News board member from northern New Mexico, was among the group’s founders. In the late 1980s, Torres was working in the tiny town of Vallecitos, N.M., which had recently seen its local sawmill close. Torres helped set up a wood-cutting cooperative to create jobs and help the forest recover from years of abuse. Rather than lumber, the cooperative cut firewood, as well as vigas and latillas — poles used in the ceilings of adobe houses and in the fences around them.

His work in Vallecitos put Torres in touch with people around the country who were practicing what he calls "community forestry." "We realized that there were a lot of people like us, working in the woods, who weren’t just cutting down trees," he says. "They were doing thinning and collecting mushrooms."

Together, with a small group of his new cohorts, Torres created the National Network of Forest Practitioners. Today, the network includes a Yale-trained forester who manages private land in Colorado with a goal of creating as many jobs as possible. Another member is a former butcher now working with migrant workers in Oregon, who have moved from the farm fields into the forests. Still another makes tea from herbs she harvests by hand from Alaska clear-cuts. Their common interest is a desire to restore forests and streams while creating sustainable jobs.

In this issue’s cover story, Adam Burke looks at another group of people who are reinventing the way we work in the woods — from within the U.S. Forest Service. After years of talk about reintroducing fire into the West’s ecosystems, these people are actually doing it: working on the hot, smoky front lines to turn fire into an ally, rather than an enemy.

Using tools as various as bare hands, chain saws and wildfire, the new breed of forest practitioners represents a small but growing force in the West. It shows that we may finally be coming to terms with a critical challenge: Trying to create a region that is livable beyond our lifetimes.