Freak wind storm flattens 6 million trees

  • Damaged area in Routt National Forest

    Diane Sylvain
  • Hurricane-force winds leveled trees in northwestern Colorado

    USFS photo

For hundreds of years, the spruce forest in the mountains north of Steamboat Springs, Colo., close to Wyoming, endured everything Mother Nature could throw at it: deep winter snows, severe drought, lightning strikes and gusty winds.

But on the night of Oct. 24, the forest got hit by something new: 120-mile-per-hour winds blowing from the east. The freak winds, spun off the backside of a massive low-pressure system that was blanketing the plains in snow, crested the Continental Divide, then knocked over trees like dominoes.

Aerial surveys the next day revealed that the hurricane-force winds downed some 6 million trees in the Routt National Forest, many of them old growth, and cut a swath 25 miles long and several miles wide.

"I haven't seen anything like this since I left the DMZ. It looks like a blast zone," says Bob Averill, a Forest Service staffer who surveyed the forest by airplane. "To see 20,000 acres of spruce laid out like that ... it just touches you."

Some of the trees snapped off, while many others keeled over, lifting their rootballs partially into the air. In places, the fallen timber has created an impenetrable wall 20 feet high, says Sherry Reed, the Forest Service district ranger who oversees the area. Hunters trapped in a cabin in the blowdown area - among only a handful of people to directly experience the windstorm - spent a day cutting their way out with chainsaws. "I don't even think an elk could make it through that tangle," says Reed.

As the magnitude of the event sinks in, agency officials, local timber industry and environmentalists are already bracing themselves for the difficult management decisions ahead. How will the blowdown affect wildlife, water quality and recreation? Should the area be left to recover on its own? Should loggers be able to remove some or all of the downed timber before its market value disappears?

Complicating these decisions is the political landscape. Of the 20,000 acres affected, some 12,000 acres lie within the federally protected Mount Zirkel Wilderness. The remaining 8,000 acres are on national forest lands that have seen occasional logging, as well as motorized vehicle use.

Bugs and fire

On top of the Forest Service's list of concerns is the threat of a spruce bark-beetle epidemic. Beetles love downed timber for food and egg-laying habitat, and this blowdown could give them ideal conditions for up to six years, Averill says. "And once they eat their way through the downed material, they will start attacking live trees."

Averill, an entomologist, says that's what happened in 1939, when a one-acre blowdown in the nearby Flattops wilderness led to a spruce bark-beetle epidemic that wiped out trees across forests throughout western Colorado and lasted until 1952. Only a severe winter finally stopped their spread.

Then there is the possibility of catastrophic fires as the downed wood slowly dries out over the next several years. Blowdowns notoriously burn hotter than healthy live forests.

Averill says the agency may use pheromones - scents attractive or repulsive to insects - to control beetles, but their effectiveness in such a large disturbed area is unclear, he says.

Logging is the other tool, and it could help alleviate both beetle outbreaks and the threat of catastrophic fire, say forest officials. Averill says he believes the downed trees outside the wilderness area should be logged, and that perhaps even some trees within the wilderness should be removed. Under the 1964 Wilderness Act, the agency could do that if the secretary of Agriculture declared that the logging was needed to prevent an outbreak of fire, disease or insects.

That notion doesn't sit well with environmentalists, especially those who fought hard to pass bills in the 1980s and 1990s to expand the Mount Zirkel Wilderness to its current 160,000 acres.

"One of the defining values of wilderness is that humans are not in control of what goes on there," says Jeff Kessler, director of the Biodiversity Associates, a group that has fought some timber sales in the area of the blowdown. Kessler says the Forest Service should avoid logging the blowdown area altogether and instead focus on gathering scientific information. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for scientific research," he says.

"We've got to make sure we're not adding damage on top of damage," adds Rocky Smith of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. Smith says he sees the rationale for conducting some logging in easy-to-reach areas. "We've got to figure out how much timber you can get and where without doing more damage to the forest through road building and soil compaction."

As for the beetle threat, Smith admits that it is real, but says "the only way to beetle-proof a forest is to remove the forest." That's not even physically possible, he says, because some of the blowdown areas are too steep and remote to log. In addition, local mills in the area can't handle that much volume over the few years that the logs will be commercially valuable.

The Forest Service, which has convened a special team of experts to evaluate management options, seems to be leaning toward a middle-ground solution.

"I'd hate to see us come up with a decision to log it all, and I'd hate to see a decision not to log anything," says Averill. "We've got quite an opportunity to merge the John Muir and Gifford Pinchot philosophies here. This is something we should all come together on."

For now, however, the blowdown is something that everyone is still trying to get their minds around.

"I had no idea of what was going on up there that night," says district ranger Reed, who lives several miles from the fallen forest. "We've been embroiled in debates over eight-acre clear-cuts on this forest. When you look at what Mother Nature did in a night, it puts the whole matter in a different light."

You can ...

* Contact the Routt National Forest at 970/879-1870, or,

* Contact Rocky Smith at the Colorado Environmental Coalition, 303/837-8701.

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