Wildfire is burning in the Wet Mountain Valley near Colorado Springs, Colo. I smell the smoke before I see it. I might be glad for a stirring burn: we're a century or so overdue. But three generations of us are here for a family reunion. Just a few steps west of our cabin, the San Carlos District of the San Isabel National Forest stretches up through dog-haired, insect-infested stands of Douglas-fir, white fir, lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce - the crooked timber of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
From the porch, everyone gapes at a spectacle unseen in three generations: dense, gray columns of smoke rise over the next ridge to the north, maybe three miles away - and upwind. After a wet winter, a hot, dry June has raved on into July. In place of the usual afternoon thunderheads, burly black spurts of smoke rain soot on us. It must be the super-flammable big white firs, incandescing.
A slurry bomber rumbles into the valley for a drop. To reassure ourselves, we drive over for a look-see. I am working on an environmental history of these forests, and my research on the San Isabel tells me that lightning- or Indian-caused fires swept this elevation every five to 12 years, leaving behind a few big ponderosas, open grasslands, very little mature oak brush and almost no big white fir.
When the Forest Service took over around 1905, the first generation of Europeans had already cut or burnt most of the accessible timber. Almost a century of grazing, fire suppression and insect infestations have resulted in uneven-aged stands on the national forest of scrub oak, dead and down fuels and those torch-like 60-foot white firs.
As we race toward the fire, we overtake another unusual sight for these parts: a loaded logging truck. Thirteen-year-old Cedar, sitting next to me, hails from the Pacific Northwest. He likes to bait his uncle, and his hormonal system kicks in on schedule: "Look at those little trees! Back home, we'd use them for kindling! Or we wouldn't even bother to cut them. I didn't think you had loggers here."
We have some loggers. More important, we have a forester - a private consulting forester. Len Lankford and his family are our neighbors here in the Wet Mountain Valley. They live a few miles away - downwind from us and from today's fire. Between them and us lie many acres of private, heavily forested lands - former dry ranchlands now broken into subdivisions. Like ours, these lands border the 40 percent of Colorado that is public land. Unlike ours, and unlike the public land, these private forests are intensively managed by Lankford for sawtimber, firewood, transplants and Christmas trees. The luxuriant, long-needled white fir make especially valuable Christmas trees. Aspen, ponderosa and blue spruce bring top dollar as transplants in the naturally treeless cities such as Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
If the federal government is, as many locals think, Leviathan, then Lankford is at home in the belly of the beast. Since 1975, he has become a successful private consulting forester in a setting dominated by government forestry. For years, driving along the Front Range or up from Santa Fe to the Sangre de Cristos, I kept seeing green and white signs announcing:
Lankford Foresters, Inc.
Initially, I thought it was a joke. Most people know you can get free forestry consulting from the Colorado State Forest Service. If you have brains and private, forested land, you grow subdivisions, not traditional wood products. Somebody else can grow commercial wood, preferably somewhere else.
I called on Lankford to find out how he does it. He turned out to be tall and lanky, with an easy-going style. But behind it lies a fierce work ethic and a master's degree in forestry from Yale.
Lankford works with landowners on a commission basis, managing for sustained yield. He helped the Colorado Forestry Association and the Colorado Tree Farming Committee lobby the state legislature for a Forest Agriculture Act, which he jokingly calls "the Foresters' Employment Act." Landowners with 40 acres or more and a forester-designed management plan qualify for the same low tax rates that ranchers and farmers get. One Lankford client with 500 acres saves $25,000 per year.
How? Lankford agreed to show me. We began our tour on some of the Lankford Tree Farms near my land. From time to time in our subdivisions, we lose trophy ponderosa to bark beetles, porcupines, mistletoe, and the Sangres' winds. With those natural losses, many of us balk at cutting live trees for any reason.
Like us, Lankford also loves trees. But he says, "I love forests more. The Forest Service will not or cannot manage these mixed conifer stands because they operate on too grand a scale." According to Lankford, the agency isn't sensitive to local markets "the way I have to be. If their living depended on good forestry, they would learn what I learned. These forests look worthless, but they will respond to good management."
Lankford's argument is reinforced by both the unmanaged private land and the San Isabel National Forest land around us. In the past, most private owners either ignored their forests or allowed cutters to high-grade the best trees with no forester input, no slash disposal, no insect and mistletoe management, and no stump policy. The Forest Service has foresters, but on the San Isabel, at least, the results are not much better than on private land.
From the land around my cabin, we went on to the east face of the Wet Mountains, west of Pueblo, where Lankford works for a family trust, managing a section of land called Adobe Creek. The family means to subdivide this land eventually, but Lankford has designed protective covenants containing phrases unusual for Colorado:
"The intent of these covenants is to preserve Adobe Creek as an exclusive, high-quality residential and working forestry and agricultural area of lasting value."
I liked the intensive forestry I saw at Adobe Creek. So did the contractor who was cutting and hauling Lankford's straight-grained timber to his one-man, custom mill far out east on the plains. So did the newly listed Mexican spotted owls, which do not conform to our stereotype of them as old-growth-dependent. They may nest in what passes here for old-growth (100-year-old inland Douglas-fir), but they forage in Lankford's intensively managed forests, as well as in nearby pin-yon-juniper woodlands.
The owl's presence in the surrounding federal lands has contributed to a virtual standstill in local federal forestry. There has also been a recent tripling of local timber prices from $40 to $120 per thousand board-feet. For the first time in years, sawtimber is paying better than firewood. In spite of the 200-mile round-trip haul distance, industry giant Stone Container Corporation is buying private timber over here.
In addition to sawtimber, Lankford sells a lot of firewood, and at much higher prices than the Forest Service gets. The difference is service. Instead of just selling a permit over the counter, and handing the person a map, Lankford meets the customer on the site. There, he shows the person which trees to cut and explains how proper cutting will lead to a healthier forest.
Even though his firewood business does well, he is not neglecting his below-cost competitors. For years he has been peppering the Rocky Mountain regional forester - now Elizabeth Estill - and Colorado State Forester Jim Hubbard with complaints about government firewood pricing policies. But both state and federal officials seem more interested in the recreational aspects of personal use firewood sales than in the mundane business of making money.
Continuing the tour, I met Lankford at Herb and Karen Marchman's, on their 36 acres of ponderosa woodlands. Just under the 40-acre limit for Forest Agriculture status, the Marchmans hired Lankford to make them money off their existing forests, and to help them evaluate the decision to buy an additional 76 acres.
Colorado's 192,000-acre Black Forest has puzzled ecologists for years. It is perfectly positioned to catch the upslope summer storms from the Gulf of Mexico. Underlain by impermeable sandstone, the Black Forest is a very good - if improbable - place to grow trees. Just north of the Air Force Academy, it points east toward Kansas for mile after mile, a long, 7,500-foot-high ponderosa peninsula awash in rolling grasslands. During Colorado's gold rush from 1858 through 1875, 16 sawmills operated here simultaneously. The pioneers clearcut the Black Forest, leaving second and third growth for today's developers and subdividers - and for people like the Marchmans, who wish to enhance their land's economic and ecological values.
Yesterday, Lankford's cutters had been at work on the Marchmans' lands, but there is no slash. Where are the stumps?
"Karen wants to ride horses through her forests," says Lankford, "so my cutters vaporize the slash to a half-inch standard; anything bigger than that, they take for kindling. The remains they scatter. They aren't finished until stumps are at ground level."
What a government forester might call a pre-commercial thinning, Lankford treats as an opportunity for full utilization. Since he isn't managing here for straight, insect- and mistletoe-free stumpage, he can play with tree shapes. Snow-bent, pistol-butted, and otherwise "malformed" character trees grow out their twisted lives in peace.
"Conventional Colorado forestry minimizes genetic diversity," Lankford says. "Beauty doesn't always come with big, straight trees. I think of myself as a sculptor, cutting to release interesting trees." He ignores conventional wisdom about snags and character trees as ladder fuels for fires. Where there are ongoing pine beetle or mistletoe infestations, he cuts quite severely, releasing smaller trees to grow.
The Lankford tour makes a final stop at Bent Tree, an upscale subdivision. Lankford has been at work here since 1979. He inherited the Colorado State Forest Service's 1975 handiwork, which left an unhappy developer holding 2.5-acre lots that resemble telephone pole plantations.
Buyers pay about $50,000 for the lots for two reasons: smashing views of nearby Pikes Peak, along with trees to give privacy. The right combination can add many thousands of dollars to a lot's value. Lankford had his work cut out for him on the 800 acres. "People don't want to look at each other's $500,000 houses down viewsheds that look like bowling allies," Lankford says. "They pay to see Pikes Peak, not each other."
The developer was unhappy with the results of earlier management that had left the land looking like a telephone pole plantation. So Lankford started a shelterwood system that would meet his aesthetic and firewood goals. It will also eventually allow the canopy to re-close and provide habitat for the beautiful, tassel-eared Abert's squirrel, which is specific to ponderosa forests.
"I learned to play with trees and move them around," Lankford says. To ensure adequate stock he convinced the developer to set aside in perpetuity 18 acres of open land as a tree farm. It provides Lankford with the bushy transplants people like. Chipped slash provides mountains of mulch.
Government foresters just shake their heads. "Lankford breaks most of the rules," one told me, "but I envy his willingness to experiment and his ability to sell forestry to clients." Without the nervous monkey of public forestry standards on his back, Lankford has only his customers - and his love of forests - to please.
Meanwhile, back in the Wet Mountain Valley, an interagency team spent a week and $400,000 in tax dollars extinguishing the 350-acre Great Fire of 1993. "Add in the value of the forest products lost in the fire, and you're talking real hurt," Lankford says.
Crooked Timber, Tom Wolf's environmental history of Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains, will be published by the University of Colorado Press this year. He lives in Custer County, Colorado.