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.
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.