The State of our Forests

Post by blogger | June 12, 2009      

If you’ve traveled through the same Colorado (or most other western states) forests for decades, you’ve probably noticed they keep getting denser, overgrown, filled with ever more snags and deadfall. Due to the environmental indoctrination I got as a youth at NOLS and elsewhere, I used to think such dense forests were natural, that logging and otherwise managing for forest products was a sin, and that somehow convenient fires would clear things out once in a while. Boy, was I wrong.

I got to audit a forest health presentation at a conference (Colorado Counties) in Vail a few days ago. The presenters laid it on the line. What I heard is that we’ve blown it. Yeah, I knew that already — but I didn’t know just how messed up our forests have become.

Backcountry Skiing

Presentation slide showing healthy forest density (right) as compared to unhealthy. I've seen much worse than this, but it makes the point.

Fire used to be a natural part of the forest — but only when it could burn frequently enough to keep vegetation density low. Once the fire cycle is suppressed, the fuel load becomes so great that resulting mega-fires sterilize the ground. Such damage is unnatural and re-vegetates poorly, causing problems such as erosion and damaged water supplies. What is more, when an overly dense backcountry forest borders on towns and cities you’re in a catch-22 because you can’t let it burn and risk a catastrophic mega-fire that could take out a town or ruin their watershed for centuries to come, but the fuel load keeps getting worse because you don’t let it burn, thus making the consequences of a fire ever more serious.

Just how bad have we let our forests get? I was stunned to learn that in many western conifer forests, the natural number of trees per acre is around 50, with an almost park-like feel to the grounds. Instead, we’ve got many areas with tree populations upwards of 1,000 an acre! Not only does this change the forest’s fire parameters and aesthetics, but it’s arguable that the present pine beetle epidemic is caused at least in part and possibly totally by the highly unnatural forest density.

The fix for this is difficult and will take years. It involves everything from thinning/logging to controlled burns where they’re possible. In some areas, we’ll be able to eventually return to a natural fire cycle, especially in legal wilderness without private property issues. But mostly, according to one presenter, the fix involves changing the culture of the west to a more realistic view of what a healthy forest is; to get away from the view that cutting even one tree down is some kind of negative event bordering on original sin.

Along with that, rural private land owners will need to be held accountable to managing any forest they own so it stays healthy. And they’ll need to maintain the proper amount of cleared “defensible” space around their structures so when fires do happen, they’re not as much of threat to private property and the fire can be managed for forest health instead of property defense.

I was amused when one presenter mentioned that many people move from the city to rural Colorado so they don’t have to mow a lawn. But little do they know that to be good stewards of their property, they’ll need to spend the same amount of time squeezing the throttle of a chain saw as they used to spend perched on their rider mower.

Ultimate solution? More than one presenter at the conference mentioned that the only way most of our forest will heal is if we again have a viable forest products industry, only managed with modern forestry science. Government funding simply can’t take care of the cost. While logging for structural wood was mentioned, the consensus seemed to be that our savior will be using biomass for energy production. Several excellent projects around Colorado are showing this is possible — and sustainable.

What I’m hoping is we’ll see smaller biomass energy plants spring up around the west, which utilize wood culled from surrounding forests. I’ve seen how they do this in Europe and it’s quite impressive. As for our personal contributions to all this: will we be able to help the USFS do some “thinning” up at our favorite backcountry skiing locations? Now that’s the kind of culture shift I can live with.


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48 Responses to “The State of our Forests”

  1. Mark Donohoe June 12th, 2009 10:21 am

    Lou, great post. But your last comment goes right to the hart of the eastern bru-ha about trail cutting and thinning.

    This year I skied in an area where the bottom of the run was chocked with dense small pines, I immediately thought it would be good to thin them for all the reasons you mentioned. The bonus would be a better run down to the road. This is also near a large development, so couldn’t hurt in terms of fire danger. But given the hassles with permits and such I doubt I’ll ever do it.

  2. Lou June 12th, 2009 10:23 am

    Yeah, I buy two Christmas tree permits every year and cut them out of a backcountry ski run. Can at least do that… Come to think of it, if every backcountry skier in Colorado cut two trees a year from a backcountry ski run that’s getting overgrown, we’d probably make a difference.

  3. Brad Johnson June 12th, 2009 10:58 am


    Agreed that years of fire suppression has caused all kinds of problems with our forests. This is due to an ill-thought-out and misguided forest management policy based on a flawed understanding of the forest ecosystem.

    My concern is with your prescribed remedy: more management decisions. What evidence do we have that we suddenly have a complete understanding of the forest ecosystem and can now make the “correct” decision and manage the forest back to a natural state? Aside from concerns of protecting life and property, why not just let forests burn themselves back to a normal state?

    My second point concerns the breadth of your post–our forests are suffering from all kinds of problems. Logging and resource extraction have caused epic damage to national forests. Fortunately most clear cutting on public lands has ceased, but the legacy of damage continues. Also, habitat fragmentation and erosion caused by development and road building are also major causes of poor forest health.

  4. Tucker June 12th, 2009 11:08 am

    The Eastern forest dynamics are a lot different from the Western forest dynamics. I’ve been to first-growth forests in Maine (there are only a couple left in the East), and they look a heck of a lot worse than the picture Lou presents above. Eastern forests are much moister than Western forests, therefore fire is much less of a risk, and much less common. If you look at un-managed forests in the East (Baxter State Park is a perfect example) you’ll find that the trees are incredibly dense, and forest fires are very rare. Even fires that start naturally and left to burn on their own, which is how fires are dealth with in Baxter, don’t turn burn everything, and recovery is extremely quick.

    I’m all in favor of back-country skiing in the East, but don’t go to Jay with a chainsaw and try this argument, you’ll likely wind up in jail.

    I find it incredibly ironic, nevertheless, that all the hoo-haa about forestry and logging from the environmentally concerned over the years has turned out to be, in some circumstances, dead wrong. What else are they dead wrong about?

  5. Phil Huff June 12th, 2009 11:16 am

    I am equally dismayed that anyone would believe high density pine forests of the Central Rocky mountains were ever anything more than a mankind fostered flora nightmare. Pecker-pole forests are the disease and the pine beetle is the cure.

  6. Lou June 12th, 2009 11:28 am

    Brad, by testing theories on quite a few regions of forest, they are proving that certain management techniques work fine. Even the folks in Boulder, Colorado are buying into this. If that ultra liberal enviro bunch says something so counter to “Acadian” environmentalism works, it works.

    I’d say the vast vast majority of this is NOT guesswork, it’s simply applying things we know work and have been denied because of cultural and/or legal constraints. Even logging can be done in a sustainable fashion that causes no permanent destruction and little in the way of temporary problems. The great evil of, shudder in our boots, clear cutting, is not a necessary approach to logging or thinning.

    As for “why not let forest burn back to a normal state?”

    I tried to answer that question above, but I’ll take a stab at it again:
    1. Doing so with our unnaturally dense forest will cause fires that could take out towns or even parts of cities.
    2. Doing so with our unnaturally dense forests sterilizes the soil resulting in an unnatural condition that can do everything from taking out a whole city’s drinking water source (Colorado Springs for example), all the way to changing the ecology to a very unnatural and dysfunctional vegetation mix.
    3. Once we return our forests to a more natural state by the use of thinning, logging and the occasional controlled burn, we can then let more natural fires go. BUT, by then we’ll probably have a hefty biomass industry that will want the stuff we’d otherwise let burn, so better to just anticipate that and learn how to manage our forests with minimal use of fire. (Exception: I’d imagine in legal wilderness we’ll trend more toward the fire side of things, but never totally as wilderness boundaries are a human construct that fire doesn’t respect.)

    The fact, and cultural change, that we need to get though our thick natural environmentally conscious skulls is that we do not live in a “natural” environment anymore. Thus, trying to just let our forests achieve some sort of natural state is not a functional solution. Like it or not, just as we manage our rivers and lakes for fish production and recreation, the forest needs to be managed as well.

    I know all this flies in the face of back-to-nature environmentalism, but reality strikes. Like the guys at the conference said, this is a culture shift and we all need to keep open minds and think outside the box of our former indoctrination and education.

  7. Lou June 12th, 2009 11:35 am

    Phil, believe me, all throughout my youth the word in the outdoor ed circles I hung out in was our forests were better left alone even if we didn’t let them burn. In other words, any thinning or logging were evil, it was better to just let things progress as they wanted to. I truly believed that for many years, and resent the people who gave me that dreadfully mistaken impression. They were fools.

  8. Sarah Manning June 12th, 2009 11:58 am


    Tucker mentioned water as one of the major differences between eastern and western forrests…it’s a point worth noting. Decay of plant material is a critical component of forest health. In the east higher moisture levels and lower general elevations create excellent conditions for decay which put nutrients back into the soil. Here in the west logs on the ground take decades to rot (take a look at the forests in Yellowstone Park…wood there is still on the ground form the ’88 fires.) Since we don’t want high intensity fires that spread from the ground up in to the canopy and become crown fires, us land owners must mechanically mimic low intensity ground fires. The folk at NRCS (Natural Resouces Conservation Service of the USDA) tell me that our bit of forest in Montana needs a) to be limbed up to about 6′ off the ground and b) needs a biomass of downed wood of about 2 to 7 TONS per acre. The trick is to leave the slash and downed trunks on the ground, spread out and as close to the ground as possible. So, hikers, break off a skeleton branch or two as you scramble over a downed tree and lay it down where what ever moisture we do get can start it’s work.

  9. Lou June 12th, 2009 12:02 pm

    Sarah, indeed, the biomass harvesting should and will be done in a way that’s sensitive to how much mass is rotted as opposed to burned off… sort of like how hunting elk is managed to equal the number of animals that would otherwise die of natural causes. We’d burn biomass that would otherwise be burned by fire, or never exist in the first place because the forest would be so much less dense. But we’d leave some on the ground.

  10. Phil Huff June 12th, 2009 12:30 pm

    Once man got involved in logging or preventing logging, there were consequences. A viable forest products industry is almost an oxymoron on steep terrain. In fact I think we have gone past those days and are fast entering the era of “highly” managed forests like those of national parks and Europe.

    When mineral miners savaged the forests in the 1800’s for the necessities of their industry they did not stop cutting until they reached tree line. They largely cut Spruce and Fir and nature sent in the second string lodge pole pine to succeed. Forest fire suppression followed, not that I believe that is the complete reason we are where are today, but never the less we enabled dense stands of even growth. Keep in mind that the forest products industry felt, at one time, that this was the best way to manage a forest. Cut it all down and let it evenly grow back so that all trees can get the same sunlight. Private land owners need to get in there and, as you point out, thin, thin, thin. What of our national forests? Will we ever see teams of volunteers with chainsaws led by foresters doing some of “God’s work”.

  11. Lou June 12th, 2009 1:02 pm

    no name calling, had to delete a few posts, be nice

  12. Lou June 12th, 2009 1:03 pm

    Phil, they already have the thinning teams out there. One of the guys at the conference said they have a team who spends their days thinning, then switches over to fire work if there is a forest fire. They are permanent employees. The key is they don’t call it “logging” anymore. That keeps all us hippies (grin) and x hippies from freaking out.

  13. Eric June 12th, 2009 3:31 pm

    Lou, Don’t be so disheartened by what you were taught.

    Previous forest management practices weren’t foolish, they were fashioned using the best information available. This is a limitation to any (including the new) management practices. Scientists simply do not know the results before they happen. Currently we can model some of these factors, and estimate the results, but this technology was not available in the ’70s, and is still inexact today.

    Also to blame is the speed of science and policy making. Policy makers decide actions to take to mitigate the problems they have. When those mitigating steps create new problems, there is a time lag before scientists can identify it as a problem, and imagine a solution; then another time lag before the problem becomes salient enough to push administrators and legislators to act.

    When deforestation and habitat destruction were the problem, no one was planning to prevent overgrowth. (or even studying overgrowth) Now that fire and disease are the issue, managers are being pressed to correct the policies of the past.

    As others have mentioned, is shows how difficult resource management is. These issues will only grow as resource pressures increase around the world. Look for these discussions to dominate science and world politics throughout the coming century.

  14. Lou June 12th, 2009 3:53 pm

    Good points Eric. I guess the lesson is we should listen to the “experts” with hearty skepticism. And beware the doctrine of preemptive caution, which frequently results in more negative unintended consequences than it does in positive results.

  15. Randonnee June 12th, 2009 5:41 pm

    Yep, we need some logging of all of these abandoned, formerly-managed tree farms- but not the pristine stuff, leave it alone. My observation is that USFS Forest Management is similar to the hot air in these posts- all over the place, more emotion, agenda, and slogan than sober thought. Without the meaningful production of timber and the revenue produced USFS lands are now ignored, facilities for recreation abandoned, road and trail systems lack enough maintenance or are abandoned. Parking Fees are not making up for the shortfall, and other political agendas reduce actual USFS boots on the ground in exchange for desk-jockeys wearing jeans, flannel shirts, and Vibram sole boots.

    Politics have ruined the Forest Management entities, taken away their ability to act within their professional training. Lawsuits funded by special interests force certain Management, right or wrong. Politics gutted the personnel in USFS, replaced by politically-correct workforce with little experience and various agendas, contributing to Agency schizophrenia.

    Multiple Use, the original Purpose of USFS is what is needed. Whatever excesses occurred in the past must not again occur. However past timber production excesses are now overshadowed by the mess created now by those who worship their environmental agenda and believe that human-use is abhorent. Just log it…

  16. Randonnee June 12th, 2009 5:49 pm


    The statement above- “Fires need to be allowed to burn, danger to a few small towns be damned” constitutes truly hateful speech and I would ask that you remove it.

    It is personally offensive, but also the above statement stands hatefully on its own. Fire was across the street form our home in the mountains in 1994, the town lost 20 homes. Such hateful attitudes toward people who live and make their living in the mountains are seen and expressed far too frequently.

  17. Mike June 12th, 2009 6:35 pm

    Randonee, it’s not a hateful statement. Living in such a beautiful place comes with increased risks. Have you considered that if fires were allowed to burn, they would be far lower in intensity than what we have to deal with now, making it far easier to defend homes? Clearly we both agree that the woods here are too dense. Responsible logging is an important part of the equation, but it’s not the end-all be-all solution.

  18. Lou June 12th, 2009 6:55 pm

    Rando, taking care of it, I thought I’d deleted it already… amazing someone could make a statement like that, basically the emotions behind environmental terrorism…

    Everyone, please watch your civility here. Mike, I’ll leave your last comment, but please no more angry sounding statements about letting towns burn and stuff like that. People get injured and killed by these fires. It happened near here just a few years ago.

  19. Matt Kinney June 12th, 2009 7:01 pm

    Unfortunately the only $$ viable way to harvest trees is clear cutting vast swaths. Selective cutting is not an option for profit driven logging companies. So I assume that you are advocating vast goverment subsidies to assist the logging industries to make a profit? Therein lies the problem: The government propping up private interprise,
    I spent two years educating people on defensible zones around their homes through the Firewise Program.around SC Alaska. This is the best and cheapest way to manage and contain damage by wildfires, thus putting the responsibility at the hands of the individual citizen, not land-managers who advocate active forest management and subsidies for selecitve timber industries. Timber is a tough business but of course its very easy to tell others to “log it” (LOL) when its not your money. Timber companies are doing fine using their own land and avoiding public lands at this time. And,,,,2×4’s have never been as cheap as they are now! Go look at Home Depot.
    “Politcs by special interest” resulted in the ceasing of huge govt susidies to the timber industry in Alaska and the western US. I find it ironic that the effort to stop this welfare was driven by “environmentalist”, while right- ringers advocated corporate welfare.
    BTW the beetle epidemic up here was huge, ran it cycle and has left a heathy forest. Not every tree died, the strongest survived and millions of spruce sapling have ooted naturally to replace the old and diseased. Its called natural selection.

  20. Lou June 12th, 2009 7:05 pm

    Government subsidies and tax benefits are powerful. Nothing inherently wrong with them in my opinion, it’s the execution that’s the problem. For example, it seems pretty wise to give solar some subsidies. And why not logging as well? Gradually take it away from the oil/gas industry and put it to biomass (otherwise known as logging), solar, and all that other sexy stuff that’s supposed to save the planet?

  21. wow June 12th, 2009 7:41 pm

    wow Lou. You truly are an enigma. Fire ecology has not been taught that way at NOLS for at least the last 20 years. Please don’t pigeon hole NOLS educators as ‘fools’. That statement speaks to your continued stereotyping and ignorance of members of the environmental community.

    I don’t doubt that they might have taught fire ecology in opposition as we now understand it. Smokey the Bear remains a powerful force even though he got us into the current mess, of which you spoke the truth and presented the facts as we currently understand them. Concerning the enviro’s that you constantly harass, you’ll have to excuse them, as I doubt they are as educated as they should be or as educated as our biologists and ecologists that gather the information on which to build understanding. However, the enviros share the same passions as yourself — to get outside and enjoy the natural world.

    You speak of a cultural shift, Lou, and here the enigma presents itself. You are part of your community, attending open houses and talks on local issues (in so far as internet readers from afar can tell), and you do seem to be genuinely interested in asking those disconfirming questions that the aggro hippies shy away from. When you gather enough information, even from the biologists you so distrust, you in this case at least, admit a tempered level of support. However, Lou, you continue to include in your seamless prose an undeniable sense of spite, distrust, and disrespect that erodes the common ground on which so many westerners call home. When your readers and community members cease to detect your condescending attitudes then we will know that you have entered into a new and current cultural dialog.

  22. Randonnee June 12th, 2009 7:46 pm

    Logging provided the materials for the homes in which we all live. It makes sense to be good stewards of our resources, to set limits, goals, requirements for timber production. There is a proven body of knowledge and pracice to do this.

    The issues are much more complex than a lot of statements here. In SE Alaska, I was on a job on Kupreanof I. near Petersburg where we logged 30 mbf. There the nature of the forest makes it necessary to clear cut- not much diversity in species, a partially-cut stand would just then blow over. That country grows timber fast- our largest Spruce there at 8 ft 6 inches on the butt and had 175 rings, thus not even 200 year old “old growth.” It does make since to limit the size of clearcuts, the viewscape, water, etc., all may be done reasonably and profitably.

    In western WA, where I began my logging career in order to buy ski gear, in some places selective logging is feasible, other places need clearcut for the reasons similar to SE AK.

    Here on the east slope of the Cascades where I live, westside species meet east side species of trees. This country is very suitable for selective cutting. Some of the longspan skyline partial-cuts from the 70’s give no clue to having been logged at all when looking up from Icicle Road. Also on Icicle Rd are big clearcuts that were Private land and scalped in the 70s, and ugly. Also, in 50 miles one drives from the rain forest at Stevens Pass to the sagebrush desert ringed by Ponderosa Pine and Larch and Fir up high at Wenatchee. This eastern fringe is also a “fire environment.”

    As far as “let it burn’ I question if those making that statement have any clue about the implications. In my past quest to secure the financing for skiing and living, I was a Hotshot firefighter for a while. There are times when it is appropriate to let a fire burn to natural boundaries or in WIlderness. I will draw the line to say that we must protect humans, homes, and towns. Someone’s human-hating environmental agenda does not trump human life.

    We need to log some of these former tree farms now laying in disuse and waste, a fire hazard. Profitability is no problem on much of the nice ground for logging that is now tied up as a result of political agendas. My views are from living it, experiencing it, studying it. My wife holds degrees in Forestry and Botany and was a production Forester when I met her. More importantly she also skis randonnee, among other sweeter attribues…

  23. Mike June 12th, 2009 8:00 pm

    Lou, sorry if my initial comment came off as uncivil or however you’d like to describe it, as that was not my intent. I have not ever condoned arson or environmental terrorism (nor will I). Progress can be made far more effectively through the proper channels.

    We’ve got a serious problem, which we’re not going to be able to put off anymore as a result of the pine beetles. Stopping the fires for all these years has put us in this situation, and it’s going to be painful whenever the big fire does start. We’ve been lucky for a couple years and if we’re really lucky, we’ll have a few cold, wet years to let some of the fuel rot and slow down the beetles.

    The resources needed to fix it just aren’t available. We’ll either have lots of pain from this problem, and we can either let it all come at once and let the recovery start, or keep trying to fight nature and suffer for decades to come. My preference is to get it over with. You and others clearly prefer the other option. There’s nothing wrong with having that opinion, but I will disagree with you on the issue and debate the point when it comes up.

  24. Lou June 12th, 2009 8:01 pm

    Question authority. I need to get one of those bumper stickers.

  25. Lou June 12th, 2009 8:14 pm

    Mike, that’s a great theory but you are advocating death and destruction. Since you didn’t put it in so many words, I’ll let your comment stand. But I really don’t see how you are not advocating for some really bad stuff and I can’t understand why you’d be so obstinate about it. A lot of very smart people apparently think we can get out of this without too many unnatural and destructive mega-fires. That’s the gentle path, and we’re already seeing success stories. It’s not just theory., and it’s not fighting nature, it’s working with her.

  26. Mike June 12th, 2009 8:32 pm

    I truly hope that no one dies as a result of forest fires here in the coming years. Maybe I’m just a pessimist, but when I go up high somewhere in Summit and see nothing but red for miles, I just can’t see any way out of this that won’t get ugly. I hope the resources we’ve got can keep the destruction to a minimum. I guess my view is formed out of semi-hopelessness for the situation, in a sort of “something bad’s going to happen, let’s get it over with rather than prolonging the inevitable” way. I think the best use of resources we’ve got is to try to make structures defensible to try to minimize the damage if/when the megafire comes.

    Let’s just hope for lots of cold and wet, that will at least slow the beetles and give us some good skiing in the mean time. I think that’s something everybody can agree on.

  27. Lou June 12th, 2009 8:35 pm

    Once the needles are on the ground, less fire hazard than a live forest, according to the experts at the conference. But when the needles are on they’re quite dangerous. Thing is, they don’t all go red at once. Another factoid: Once the trees fall over, a fire is actually worse for the ecology because it is even more likely to sterilize the ground.

    To me this stuff is VERY interesting.

  28. Randonnee June 12th, 2009 8:37 pm

    A proven body of knowledge and practice exists to solve these problems. Wood products can be produced profitably usually, and if not, pretreatment of timber stands for fire resistance or ultimately defensible firelines and backburning can often protect humans and property. The diffculty arises from the opposition of fanatical and obstinate environmental agendas and mantras that just deny reality.

    Zoning and Building Code Regulations may be reasonably used to reduce the hazard of the Wildland/ Urban interface.

    A lot of this let it burn, we are the enemy of the earth ranting does not appear to be based in fact. Instead, it is agenda driven by rhetoric. Unfortunately, that rhetoric has been successful at times in attracting support from some who do not have understanding of the issues.

  29. Mark Worley June 12th, 2009 8:48 pm

    This forest management issue is a big one that won’t simply go away, so we’d better talk about it and find some answers as we are beginning to do here. Many of us here remember the big fires of 1988 in Yellowstone. I was not too far from them when they raged, and the effects were stunning: ash everywhere, cloaked skies and nearby peaks hidden from view at mid-day, air so thick it was hazardous to breathe. All this may have been a portent of things to come. As to people taking an active roll in safeguarding structures in forest areas, personal responsibility must move homeowners to action. Even if Joe homeowner lives near the fire station, he’s got to do his part.

  30. Phil Huff June 13th, 2009 9:31 am

    What an interesting discussion and I wonder about how we base our vision of a natural forest in this century. After all, what is natural? Man has long impacted the Rocky mountain forest ecology and that association began long before the heavy hand of the last 150 years. The Utes very likely used animal drives and fire as part of their food gathering process. Herds of grazing animals prolonged clearings in the forest. That cleaner, thinner forest environment often only burned at the duff layer, something called a huckleberry fire back east, and left the larger trees alone. Stands of trees were probably more like “large islands” then a constant forests blanket that we seem to think is necessary today. If man has removed the conditions which created the ideal forests then should man not work to replace them? What should a natural forest look like today? My personal vision includes vertical clearings of about 100 turns.

  31. Jason June 13th, 2009 11:30 am

    Thanks for writing about this! Until folks get out in the woods and see it for themselves, they just won’t understand. Dense stands are a drain on our forest health and ecology. This (density) is of course, different throughout each ecosystem. We could really use the alternative energy biomass stations around northern California. Our forest are ripe for this! However, people like Chad Hansen and the like stop this kind of stuff through their uneducated opinions. Preservation works where man has not been, but we’ve been all over the place, it’s time for Conservation and Sustainability! Take the Angora fire for instance… to thick, but people were getting fined for the 100′ dfpz by the TRPA. Stupid. Now their houses are gone. Thanks for writing about this.

  32. Sean June 13th, 2009 12:44 pm

    Every time you discuss this issue, Lou, I see you use ideology rather than facts as your argument. And I find that disappointing, to say the least, because you are so thoughtful on matters of mountaineering and skiing.

    Your use of a straw-man is the most disturbing thing. According to your argument, the problem is that “environmentalists” have an artificial view that suggests all logging is bad.

    Using straw-men is a cheap way to feel vindicated, and I expect more from an intelligent man such as yourself.

    The reason **informed** environmentalists (i.e., those who have a background in ecosystem biology) have a problem with logging isn’t that it’s a sin to cut a tree. It’s that logging practiced across America is done destructively (clear-cutting and other ecosystem disturbing / destroying methods) and with poor justification (“fuels reduction”).

    I suppose a person could imagine Divine Providence or Manifest Destiny to justify the arguments you’re offering — that the Sky-God put humans on earth to dominate and control their ecosystems. Such an arrogant view isn’t something I’d expect you to harbor, but your arguments tread awfully close to that line of thought. Needless to say, there is no proof of a Sky-God’s existence, let alone a divine plan. But religion and faith being what they are (existential comfort to the frightened), the view of Manifest Destiny persists despite its illogical, non-factual, unproven nature.

    Forests do not require human intervention to remain “healthy.” Forests are not apartments, houses or offices that must conform to a human ideal of what looks “healthy.” Only a detached ecosystem biologist could tell us whether manipulation of a forest is positive or negative. Such biologists aren’t found in the US Forest Service, nor are they found working for Maxxam, Plum Creek, Weyerhauser, or any other big-scale timber extractor business. If someone has a financial stake in justifying man’s meddling in a forest ecosystem, then the financial stake pollutes and distorts the arguments offered by the interested party.

    I think it wiser to go with what disinterested ecosystem science tells us, and not to just look for a demon to negate, or an excuse to offer.

    Current USFS forest fire policy is basically a financial bonanza, not a science-grounded project.

  33. Lou June 13th, 2009 4:22 pm

    All interesting points Sean, but something tells me we’re going to be managing our forests via human intervention, as we’ve been doing for decades… might as well make the best of it.

    People can argue till they’re blue in the face that we should let nature take its course, etc, etc, and that man is an arrogant fool to try and intervene.

    But that’s simply not the way things are progressing. Heck, now we’re even talking about managing the gas composition of our atmosphere. What are a few trees compared to that?

  34. gtrantow June 14th, 2009 1:02 pm

    The forests with the most diversity of plant life and animals seem to be managed by man in some way (ranchers, loggers & hunters) today. Ask any wildlife biologists where to find wild game and they will tell you the fringes of grass/sage/aspen or sage/aspen/pines. The lack of forest fires and beetles has resulted in thick stands of pines with very little diversity of plants and animals.
    I have witnessed modern forestry science in Germany and Wisconsin and the proof is very easy to see visually and to scientifically measure. The carrying capacity of the forests for key wildlife explodes within a few years of numerous small clear cuts and selective cutting.
    The blaze orange army (deer hunters) in Wisconsin uses science to create biodiversity and increase the health of the deer herds. Other wild animals also benefit from the selecting cutting, planting and cover produced by the hunters.
    I hope the best science is convincing enough to politicians to change how Colorado forests are managed in the future. Best, George

  35. Lou June 14th, 2009 1:52 pm

    It’s basically common sense that anyone who observes the forest for decades easily picks up on. But funny how so many people turn a blind eye to it.

  36. Neil June 14th, 2009 7:07 pm

    Interesting to see you have the same problems in the US as we have here in Australia. Eucalyptus forests are highly flammable and for eons fire has been part of the natural cycle (some eucalypts actally require fire to germinate the seeds); however, from the late 1970’s, under the coservation movement’s pressure, control burns in the urban/rural areas and in state/national parks became verboten.

    Consequently, when bush fires do occur, with the greater fuel loads present, the fires are of much greater intensity than would otherwise have been the case. This can be devestating, as show by the bushfires in February this year in Victoria (173 people killed, over 2,200 homes destroyed) and the 2003 Canberra bushfires (4 people killed, over 500 homes lost).

    Sometimes we forget that people are also part of the ecosystem. Our impact needs to recognise sustainability. Lets hope some common sense and balance returns to forrestry mamangement.

  37. Njord June 14th, 2009 9:35 pm

    I was at an aerial firefighting conference in early May… we were looking at some of the worst possible fire conditions that Colorado might have ever faced. Way too much dry fuel in the forest. The six weeks of rain that we have been getting is saving our butts! Is this had been a dry year, we would be having a totally different conversation right now!

    Things might have been really, really ugly this year….

  38. Njord June 14th, 2009 9:46 pm

    @ Matt McK: I think you are generalizing logging WAY too much to say that clear cutting is the only profitable way to clear timber.

    Yes, it is easy and SUPER profitable, but there are other ways such as setting up aerial cables and, gulp, using those dreaded helicopters for logging! The margins are not as great, but it allows for a low-impact form of selective logging that DOES work!

  39. Matt Kinney June 14th, 2009 11:31 pm


    I have never had issues with “work helcopters”. (-:

    Helilogging is occuring in SE AK, but is pretty marginal profit wise.

    Every once in awhile I stand in an old growth forest. We are surrounded by old growth in Prince William Sound and VAldez is the precise norhtern extent of the N.A.rain forest. Many times I jhave ust reached out and wrapped my arms as far as I can around the trunk of moss covered speciman, hug and smile.

    I know that many of us Americans (Inot environmentalist or greenies) worked hard in the early 1990’s to buy up all the timber rights in Prince William Sound and kick the logging industry as far from sight as possible. We stopped them. The money for this action was made possible by the state and federal funds secured from the Xon Valdez Oil Spill Settlement.. The Irony is obvious.

    Defensible zones (Fire Wise Program) around you rhomes is the best way for you as a citizen to defend your home versus wiating for the govererment to do it for you after hoilding ublic meeting or seminar presentation on 20 different forest management plans. Why wait?

  40. Lou June 15th, 2009 6:26 am

    I’ve seen a bunch of logging in Austria done with the aerial cable systems. They’re really interesting. They’ve got biofuel energy plants all over the place. All the forest I’ve seen during many backcountry ski days there is beautiful — and heavily managed. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, the cable usually feeds the wood products to a road.

  41. Don June 15th, 2009 6:55 am

    On our mountain in the Front Range foothills, we are 100% private 5-acre lots on steep terrain, and our forest is overgrown worse than the picture above. Our problem is people are too lazy to get off their butts and take care of their property. Doing my small piece in the middle of an overgrown hell will likely not help when the fire comes through. It really pi$$es me off.

  42. Lou June 15th, 2009 7:16 am

    Don, one of the issues they spoke of at the conference was that of creating and/or enforcing more laws to force property owners to take care of their property so it doesn’t contribute to the overall fire hazard. A difficult issue, for sure, as just the enforcement of such laws is incredibly expensive (paying staff to drive or fly around inspecting property, for example.) The guy from Boulder said they’ve got pretty strict rules now that are enforced when you first build, but after that most property owners let the vegetation grow back to various levels, as they don’t have the time/desire/money/skills to keep their property thinned out, and if there are any regulations they are only lightly enforced, if at all.

  43. Dave Field June 15th, 2009 8:48 am

    Who sponsored the research and forestry information that was presented? Given the various financial, conservation and social interests involved I can see huge potential conflict of interest. Its always hard to stand back far enough and see (through the trees?) a clear and objective set of facts that all can agree on and even hard to agree on the best action plan.

  44. gonzoskijohnny June 15th, 2009 1:39 pm

    unnatural forests do equal problems- fuel loads, even aged woods, single species =fire danger and insect issues.
    How we got here is a good history lesson, but what to do involves the right thing vs. econcomics vs. time and astethics.

    -Nature will cure it, but it will take a while, have some ugly repercussions, and not look so good in the short term.
    -why is time such a big issue (real estate values and comp sales)? Forests have been here since the last big glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago!
    -commercial logging will NOT cover all the acerage and replace it in a natural condition.
    -how much should we spend to do it the “right way”?
    -and to whom do we give the money to do this?
    -is fire danger of urban interface homes (if you safely evacuate the people) really a big issue?

    Didn’t the Flatops have a big bug infestation total their forest in the 1950s? result?

    Check out Yellowstone since the big fires- lots of fire and smoke and ash for 4 months, but soil sterilization did NOT happen, mosaic pattens returned within a decade, the place is 1000% better post fire now some 20 years later.

    Why do I pay extra to live in a town- small yard, pay for a fire department, pay fire insurance, and live within 250 feet of a fire hydrant, and yet be expected to pay for fire fghting for large acreage uninsured homeowners in the forest?
    Why don’t these people tend to their own places (thin trees, remove fuels, build with fire resistant materials) and pay their own fire insurance and fire protection without my subsidy?- yet agin the rich make the rules, the common man pays.

    I suggest we not waste the reasonably recovered resources (pellet and wood stove fuel, blue stain pine trimboards, house logs, etc.) near existing roads;
    but let’s not use a 10 year bug infestation naturally fixing the unhealthy lodgepoles, or fire danger of the urban interface for 0.2% of the population, or corporate economics for a few big companies dictate the best solution.

  45. Randonnee June 15th, 2009 9:25 pm

    Quote from Lou- “I’ve seen a bunch of logging in Austria done with the aerial cable systems. They’re really interesting.” The longspan skyline is very light on the land, logs are suspended, a partial cut removal leaves a very nice and intact forest. Yep, I have worked on lots of various US and also Swiss cable logging systems. Here on the east side of the WA Cascades several outfits of Swiss loggers moved in in the 70’s to log unroaded and steep terrain. I worked on several jobs with a Swiss skyline suspended 50 to 100 ft high and to a length of 5500 ft for hauling logs from extremely steep and unroaded terrain. This is an alternative to heli logging, which I have also done. The longspan skyline is less productive, 4-8 truckloads per day for a line, compared to 50 to 80 loads with the giant Sikorsky Skycrane logging old growth. Anyway, good point, there are good light-impact ways to do this stuff, there are volumes of books on the subject. In fact, in the day, logging engineers were employed by USFS, probably not too many now. No need (as some do) to wring hands and lament and pretend to reinvent what already exists- good forestry management practices have been established.

  46. Scott June 16th, 2009 11:18 am

    Interesting debate.

    I live in a forested area, have logged a little in my life, and spent 5 years as a firefighter for the USFS (Hotshot and IA crews)

    The Northwest has been mismanaged as evidenced by clear cuts and subsequent landslide and watershed degradation. However many of the loggers in the NW are very environmentally minded folks, their livelihood depends on healthy sustainable forestry. Theses same people also spend all their free time hunting, fishing, mushroom hunting, etc.. in these forests. Not to say all loggers are light on the land, but with little logging allowed on public lands people have been trying to harvest timber in the healthiest way possible.

    Interestingly as I was a firefighter in OR we had a logging operation in out forest, immediatly we had ELF, Earth First!, Green Peace, etc all come from the wood work and cause havoc. They had 3 tree sitters proclaiming they were were ‘saving old growth’ these so-called environmentalist never realized that they were sitting in Fir trees in a Sugar pine Forest. These tree had been planted in the 1920, to replace the suga pines that had been clear cut. They talked about what a healthy pristine forest they were saving. This forest was planted, managed and then harvested by logging utilizing helicopters in early 2002. These people had no clue what they were talking about. They also left feces, a trashed van, and various litter all around the site when they left, Environmentalist? I think not!

    During my short stint as I logger, I was dismayed by some practices, and in favor of others. Now I do lot clearing, tree removal on my own. I always try to convince landowners to keep diversity on their property, I tell them I can always come back and remove more trees, but cant come replace a 200 year old one…. Most others people in the tree business and loggers will echo the same thing.

    In 2002 I was on the Biscuit Fire, just under 500,000 acres in OR and N Cal. The fire was healthy in some places and nuked other places, the nuked places were dense forests that had been logged previous and left to their own to regenerate. The places with a ‘healthy’ burn were either managed logging areas, or places where fire had been left to it’s natural course. We basically ran from the fire everyday, finally we established a fire line into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, this area had burned in late 80s. The difference was amazing. Most places that had burned in the 80s were extremely healthy, Pines, Oaks, Fires, etc were huge and healthy. Right across the old fire line was a densley choke forest. We were actually able to hold the burn to the old fire area, once a few embers crossed to the densely tree areas the fire picked up intensity and kept burning nearly to the coast.

    Point is we have put ourselves in a pickle, letting things just burn is not natural because the fuel load is no longer natural, putting out every fire is not natural. Logging is not natural. We need to get past the greenies vs. logging, vs, USFS and work together (sounds like Repubs and Dems huh?). Not all logging is bad, not all environmentalist are bad, and the USFS still has people that actually care about the forest not just being bobble headed bureaucrats (not enough though)

    As far as houses burning, touchy subject. It has been said that letting houses burn and paying the owners may be cheaper than the cost of suppression. No one deserves to loose their house or do they? I have little pity for a homeowner that builds a $500,000 house and is too cheap to do a little mitigation work around the property, same as people who build in known flood plains and want to blame levys, the government, etc for their loss. I had a friend with property in the Missionary Ridge Fire (CO). The spring before I convinced him to clear some trees, limb trees, and reduce ladder fuels. We spent about 3 days on 3 acres doing this. His house escaped, but his neighbors did not. Luckily there were firefighters their to help save his house, he would have been fine had his surrounding neighbors created a buffer on their property. If you live on a slope in a forest on a 1 acre lot there is not much you can do unless EVERYONE in the neighborhood is on the same page.

    I think that people in CO will not pull their head from the sand until most of Summit, Routte and Pitkin counties get leveled. Only then it will be to late as there may be few trees left to save and manage. People in CO really have no idea about fires in the urban interface, there was a wakeup in 2001 and 2002, but burnt homes is commonplace in CA, NV, OR, WA, etc…..

    I wonder if a modern day CCC could be utilized to help thin/log forests to stimulate economy while providing jobs and timber for our country? It sure would leave a longer lasting impression that bailing out banks and corrupt politicians….

  47. Lou June 16th, 2009 12:53 pm

    Good stuff Scott!

    Regarding a modern day CCC, the most logical thing I’ve heard is that we should use the overburden for sustainable biofuel energy production, which in turn makes thinning and management affordable.

  48. Gary August 25th, 2009 9:05 pm

    Lou, Thanks for your insightful article. I have been following the MPB and Ips Beetle infestation through our state for the past five years. We live in the James Peak/South Boulder Creek drainage in Gilpin county at about 9200 ft. The Vail presentation is 100% correct. Our area here was clear cut about 120 years ago, probably a beautiful Ponderosa and Spruce old growth forest with 20 or so trees per acre. Then the miners took everything out to build mine shorings, houses and other structures, as well as fuel for heat and cooking. Of course they also left a hell of a mess physically and environmentally, but after the clear cut, at least 90% of what came back (as typical at this elevation) is lodgepole. We probably have that 1000 or more lodgepoles per acre in the entire huge drainage (Lump Gulch) and they are probably 120 years old. The MPB had been making some small inroads previously but then last year the Ips has hit. In the last week we have seen literally hundreds of previously healthy lodgepoles “tip out” meaning the ends of the branches are going orange at the tips. These trees are now hot and will be a hazard. As homeowners we are working on our own property but the DOI and USFS need to get involved. Heard today they granted 4000 acres in Summit county for timber. If we have a fire in any of these high fuel load areas (i.e. most of the Colorado Rockies) it will be (in USFS terms) a “sterilizing fire” meaning nothing will regrow for hundreds of years, leaving the area a high altitude desert. We need to reduce fuel loads, get rid of dead trees by roadsides (how about buffers? what a concept!) do thinning of dead and sick trees, timber, biomass, whatever! Some of the commenters are the typical Birkenstock tree-huggers that don’t understand the difference between a crown fire and an incinerating fire. We created this mess and we have to deal with it. Thanks for sharing your story. I have been into this stuff (USFS, etc) for over five years now. Gotta put pressure on Salazar, Bennett and Udall. Polis is on board as are our state guys. This could be our Katrina.

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