Show me the science

  • GOLDEN GLORY: Aspen trees in fall

    Dale E. Schicketanz photo
 

It was the 1960s, and the signs plastered everywhere in western Colorado suggested that I "Ask a Friendly Native."

The "natives" were not the Utes - they were long gone. The signs referred to the Anglos who ran the gas stations and cafes scattered across the region's 30,000 square miles of desert, forest and canyon.

Even before I saw the signs, I had taken their advice. On my first trip into western Colorado, in 1967, while driving across McClure Pass, I waved down a truck driver to ask if I were on a road or in some farmer's pasture.

"It is a bit rough," he agreed, after glancing at my license plate, "but it's what we call a road out here."

Today, even another kid from New York City would recognize McClure Pass as a road - it has a paved surface, generous shoulders and gentle curves. In large part, that's because of Club 20, a consortium of 21 rural counties that banded together to fight Denver for their fair share of the state's highway money.

It was also Club 20 that had plastered western Colorado with the Friendly Native stickers. I snickered at the saying back then, but I realize now that the message was shrewd. It was the dawn of the New West, and many of the natives were surly, or at best unaccustomed to dealing with people who couldn't tell the difference between a road and a pasture. The signs reminded them that the fools were carrying gold.

The signs disappeared in the 1970s, when a new love stole Club 20's heart: oil shale. Every oil company in the world was in western Colorado, determined to get hold of some of President Jimmy Carter's $88 billion subsidy, and use it to squeeze oil out of rock. The boom went on for about five years, and it was probably the last time Club 20 had a really good time.

The oil shale bust - which was actually just a return to normalcy - began in 1982, and for most of the 1980s, the quiet years, life was good here. But now the region is in another torrential economic boom, and Club 20 should again be having fun. It isn't, however.

Last year, Club 20 held an all-day conference to deplore the "invisible bust" it said was sweeping away western Colorado's logging, ranching, dam building and mining industries. This year, it narrowed its focus to one natural resource issue: the failure of the U.S. Forest Service to log the region's aspen forests, and produced a report titled The Decline of the Aspen: Special Report on the Health of National Forests in Western Colorado.

The departing Utes

Aspen are the glory of western Colorado's mountains. Their forests are open and light, they have little underbrush, and there are few fallen trees because the trees in a forest tend to die at the same time. The forests are beautiful in the summer and gorgeous in the fall, when their splashes of yellow and gold against the dominant conifer green make a fall visit thrilling and unforgettable. But aspen forests are not forever. Most of the area's aspen began growing toward the end of the last century (one story, almost certainly false, says the departing Utes fired the conifer forests in the 1880s, and the aspen forests sprang up then). They mature at age 80 or so, and their average age right now, in western Colorado, is 90 to 110 years. That puts them in late middle age, nearing their dotage.

As some (definitely not all) aspen stands age, conifers infiltrate and then slowly push their way up through the taller, thinner and more graceful trees. Even before all the aspens die, the conifers will have taken over, dimming the chromatic glory of western Colorado's falls.

Although scientists differ widely, even wildly, over how accurate this scenario is, let's accept it, and ask: What can be done? The Club 20 report says the aspen forests and their invading conifers need to be "disturbed" (forestry-speak for destroyed), by fire or logging, so that the trees will regenerate from the 15,000 to 30,000 sprouts per acre that usually emerge after an aspen forest is removed.

As luck would have it, the needs of forest health and tourism can be met by a Louisiana-Pacific mill in the town of Olathe, in the heart of aspen country. It stands ready to convert aspen into waferboard. All that is needed is large aspen sales to L-P by the U.S. Forest Service.

Why won't the Forest Service sell the trees? The Club 20 report, which is a mix of biology and public policy, blames the agency's attempts to avoid below-cost timber sales. Club 20 also says the agency is paralyzed by its attempts to please all constituencies, including environmentalists.

The report has a cure for what ails the Forest Service. It wants the agency to change its planning so that special interests no longer micromanage the forests. Instead of extended debates over how many trees should be cut, where a drill rig should be placed, and how much grass cows should eat, the report wants the public to focus on the big picture. The public should decide how much aspen it wants, how much conifer, how much open meadow, what size big game herds, and so on.

Once the broad-brush decisions are made, Club 20 wants the Forest Service to be given the power to get the job done. No more appeals or meetings. Just full speed toward forest health and beauty. And if what the public wants leads to below-cost logging sales or subsidized dams, then the federal government should make up the deficit.

Club 20, then, wants us to go back to the good old days, when an iron triangle ran the land: congressmen (and in western Colorado, it was Rep. Wayne Aspinall); the Forest Service; and miners, loggers and ranchers. Why did the good old days disappear, and leave us gridlocked? The Club 20 report dances around the question but finally gives this explanation for the public's antipathy to logging:

"This transformation in national policy (to non-management) was largely initiated by a public attitude to resent any human presence or disturbance in the forests whatsoever."

Unfortunately for Club 20, the "public attitude to resent any human presence or disturbance in the forests whatsoever" has a straightforward explanation. The public didn't like the way the agency in the past teamed with loggers, ranchers and oil and gas drillers to manage the forest. The public has decided, at least for the moment, that gridlock is preferable to management.

L-P was a nightmare neighbor

The Club 20 report carries water for one of the companies that created the distrust. Until the law caught up with it, the Louisiana-Pacific waferboard plant in Olathe was a nightmare neighbor, illegally sending out such foul air that nearby residents were literally driven out of their homes (HCN, 6/26/95).

This is a well-known regional scandal. But the pillars of western Colorado - county commissioners and mayors and groups like Club 20 - supported L-P during its long rampage. It took a community-minded environmental group, Western Colorado Congress, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to bring L-P to the bar of justice and convict it of felonies.

This history explains why the public distrusts any intrusions into the national forests. But instead of dealing openly with what happened, the Club 20 report portrays the public as irrational and anti-scientific.

Club 20 also avoids hard truths when it distances itself from the crippling of the Forest Service. The national political movement Club 20 is part of has been unbendingly hostile to the federal government, to any "threats' to private property, and to the use of tax money to provide for the greater public good, except when that public good is dams or logging roads or oil-shale subsidies. Since 1981, when Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter, Club 20's allies have been waging war against federal bureaucrats and against Washington, D.C. It is naive to think that Club 20 can now wave a report subtitled "Show Me the Science" and resuscitate an agency and a philosophy of shared public responsibility that it has helped put on its deathbed.

On the other hand ...

Club 20's report is a hoot because it is always fun to jump on the other guy and point out his inconsistencies. But the report also has strengths. In it, Club 20 supports the concept of a competent federal land manager. It says that the continuing agony of the Forest Service and the accompanying lack of management are unacceptable.

It uses the possible decline of aspen forests to show why we need management. If I were writing the report (the report's authors and financing are never identified), I would emphasize other costs of a paralyzed agency: illegal incursions into roadless areas, deterioration and erosion of existing roads and trails, and the fact that off-road-vehicle users have free run of the forests because the Forest Service is in its offices and courtrooms and no longer in control of the ground.

But whether they are my problems or Club 20's problems, the cure is a competent Forest Service.

The report has another strength. As a pro-development group, Club 20 could turn its back on natural resources. It could completely throw in its lot with subdividers and resort developers. Instead, this report voices a continuing commitment to rural economies.

Although the report is badly flawed, it is also a document to be reckoned with. It is weak because, like many traditional Western groups and politicians, its writers appear unable to understand that natural resource corporations are often the enemies of healthy land and competent land managers. But the Club 20 report also remains loyal to the bedrock of rural life in the West: strong federal land management and rural economies.

By comparison, with the exception of a few outfits like The Nature Conservancy and the land trusts, environmental groups often position themselves as enemies of rural life and rural economies. Environmentalism in the West started out to reform certain land-use practices. But it now often poses as a revolutionary effort, against all logging and grazing, happy to see public land management agencies in permanent paralysis, and willing to have rural economies and rural landscapes replaced by service economies and suburbia.

Until that changes, environmentalism will remain an alien movement, and the Club 20s of the West, for all their flaws, will continue to command the loyalties of Westerners.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

To obtain a copy of the report, call Club 20 at 970/242-3264.

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