Wildfire prevention or forest destruction? Mountain communities question forest service clear cutting

Photo by Josh Schlossberg.

Photo by Josh Schlossberg.

The following article was written by Josh Schlossberg and appears in the current issue of the Boulder Weekly. – mk

Drive along Highway 119 south of Nederland or Highway 9 south of Frisco and you’ll see large swaths of bare soil and scattered slash — including entire hillsides — where once there was forest. These aren’t future subdivisions, but the Arapaho and White River National Forests.

The U.S. Forest Service is undertaking logging with the goal of keeping communities and the forest safe from wildfire. The project is funded by taxpayers to the tune of $1,200 per acre. But some locals, upset about the changes to the forest they know and love, are questioning if logging can really protect their homes and whether wildfire is as much of a threat to the forest as they’re being told.

Some residents of the mountain towns Nederland and Frisco are up in arms about these “fuel reduction” logging projects. Forest Service efforts often include cutting down thousands of acres of public forests that many enjoy as a quiet place to recreate, including the popular West Magnolia Mountain Bike Trail in Nederland and the section of the nationally renowned Colorado Trail outside of Frisco.

The Ophir Mountain Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project consists of 1,500 acres of clearcuts in the White River National Forest outside of Frisco, with trees chipped and trucked 70 miles to the Eagle Valley Clean Energy biomass facility in Gypsum. The Lump Gulch Fuel Treatment Project will cut 500 acres in the Arapaho National Forest outside of Nederland, with much of the material piled to burn on site, according to Marcia Gilles, public affairs specialist for the Arapaho National Forest. Both areas have recently experienced the native mountain pine beetle, an epidemic that peaked between 2007 and 2009 and has since subsided.

The Forest Service contends that logging these forests, which are in some cases miles from the nearest home, will “protect communities and restore natural processes to forest ecosystems.” Yet some Coloradans point to science demonstrating that logging is often ineffective at stopping large wildfires and can even make them spread more quickly by opening the forest to sunlight and wind.

“We have learned that forest thinning is rarely effective under extreme burning conditions, and the severity of fire in adjacent forests has little to do with whether a home burns,” says Tania Schoennagel research scientist at University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and co-author of a new study titled Learning to Coexist with Wildfire.

While the wisdom of logging to prevent wildfire continues to be debated, the most effective action homeowners can take to prevent their homes from burning is to tend an area 100 feet to 200 feet surrounding the structure, called the home ignition zone, according to the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. One study showed 95 percent of homes with metal roofs and a maintained area of 30 feet to 60 feet survived fires.

Vivian Long of Nederland, president of the Magnolia Forest Group, says she doesn’t subscribe to the Forest Service “rationale of logging for fire protection to save us from the big fire.” She’s concerned that clearcutting will simply create another “spindly, lodgepole thicket” in the forest, which the agency might want to log again in the future for the same reason. Her group is in discussion with the agency in hopes of amending some of the ongoing logging in the area.

As in Nederland, locals in Frisco are concerned that logging will have a negative impact on recreational resources that are a national draw, including ski areas and the Colorado and Continental Divide trails.

Having spoken to forestry experts and studied the woods as he hikes, Howard Brown of Silverthorne says he would prefer to see the lodgepole pines around trails like the Peaks Trail left alone to eventually become spruce-fir climax forest, rather than turned into a “war zone.” He’s worried about the harm to the local resort community of Breckenridge, as the clearcuts transform from “thickets, to overgrown Christmas tree lots, to dense scrawny lodgepole monoculture.”

“When you live next to the forest, there’s a chance there’s going to be a forest fire,” says Frisco resident Don Cacace, who has opposed the Ophir Mountain project since its inception. “The last thing we want to do is cut down the forest.”

No one denies the inevitability of wildfire in Colorado. Rocky Mountain forests have evolved with fire over the millennia as a natural and essential component of western forest ecosystems. Fire kills off some trees to make room for future growth, returns vital nutrients to the soil and creates wildlife habitat. 

Over the past century, attempts have been made to suppress wildfire out of concern for communities and at the behest of the timber industry. The perspective of industry, the Forest Service, and some environmental groups is that fire suppression has resulted in overgrown forests full of dangerous “fuel” — either dense stands of live trees or beetle kill — that is causing more frequent and destructive wildfires. The proposed cure for these sick forests is a logging prescription that will restore the forest and keep people safe, while gleaning some merchantable lumber or biomass energy.

Recent science has challenged these assumptions, demonstrating that wild fires, including large, catastrophic ones, were historically quite common in Colorado and that large fires are more a product of drought, high temperatures and wind than fuel levels. Studies have shown that large wildfires are often just as likely to burn through clearcuts devoid of most fuels, as they are through densely-stocked forests.

While beetle-killed trees in the Rockies have been impossible to ignore, Bill Romme, who teaches forest and fire ecology at Colorado State University, says there is “little or no such relationship between beetle-caused tree mortality and subsequent fire occurrence and severity in lodgepole pine forests,” as quoted in an article written for NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Scott Fitzwilliams, forest supervisor of the White River National Forest, acknowledges the controversy, yet explains the need for projects such as Ophir Mountain and the upcoming Keystone Vegetation Management to give firefighters a “chance to protect homes, property and power lines.” He is also concerned about what’s going to happen over the next few years when beetle-killed trees start falling, risking the safety of recreationists and creating a “tangled mess.”

As more and more people inhabit Colorado’s forests, the chance of a community experiencing wildfire increases. Federal, regional, state and local grants are available for home treatments, while Saws and Slaws is bringing community members around Nederland, Coal Creek Canyon and Sugarloaf together to make homes firewise and feast together afterward, with projects starting up again in the spring.

No matter what happens in the forest, Fitzwilliams says the Forest Service is going to feel the heat. If they cut trees in an attempt to prevent wildfire, they’ll be criticized by those who’d rather see nature take its course. If they do nothing and a wildfire ignites, they’ll be blamed for that, too. Fitzwilliams says there’s science and emotion on all sides of the issue, and adds “we’re going to have to make some choices that are sometimes hard to swallow.”

15 Comments

  1. I was led to believe that the Front Range forests were clear cut in the 19th century to provide the wood necessary for shoring up underground mining in that area. Subsequent aforestation was CCC driven during the Depression, and the resulting second growth forest of today is the one that continues to be fueling catastrophic fires in areas inhabited only due to railroad checkerboard land sales and patented mining claims no longer viable as mining sites. Or were never mined but were patented in the questionable legal practices of corruption and graft in the 19th century Interior Department. The old saw about the gift that keeps on giving.

  2. We’ve talked about this many times…. including the research that isn’t really relevant. I wonder when the environmental consequences of legal marijuana policies (all those grow lights, all those nutrients and use of fossil fuels, all that water, etc.) with the health implications (the precautionary principle) will be written about in the Boulder Weekly ;)?

    • Sharon, many topics get discussed here “many times”. Please share with us which of the referenced forestry research isn’t really relevant, in your opinion, and why you consider it irrelevant, that would be helpful. It seems like your segue into marijuana culture (presumably not in the forest, with the reference to grow lights) is a better example of something that’s truly irrelevant, in a discussion forum ostensibly dedicated to discussion of a “new century of forest management”.

    • Yes, Sharon, so much better to focus on your state legalizing recreational marijuana than on this article. What’s next? Focusing on the resources used making beer? Or maybe we could have a discussion of all the environmental consequences of organized religion?

      Let’s face it Sharon. Yes, we’ve talking about many things many times here, but the likely reality is that you’d rather not have articles like this posting on the blog. That’s my honest feeling about it.

      Often on this website we hear some people claim to know what other people think or believe or feel about various topics. Well, in this article it says:

      Some residents of the mountain towns Nederland and Frisco are up in arms about these “fuel reduction” logging projects. Forest Service efforts often include cutting down thousands of acres of public forests that many enjoy as a quiet place to recreate, including the popular West Magnolia Mountain Bike Trail in Nederland and the section of the nationally renowned Colorado Trail outside of Frisco.

      So is that a valid opinion of some of these residents? I would think so. Seems like the article includes other local citizens sharing their opinions of the management of public lands in their backyards. You have to wonder that if all these people were cheering the Forest Service on if your impression of the article would be different?

      And what are this quote from a research scientist?

      “We have learned that forest thinning is rarely effective under extreme burning conditions, and the severity of fire in adjacent forests has little to do with whether a home burns,” says Tania Schoennagel research scientist at University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and co-author of a new study titled Learning to Coexist with Wildfire.

      Yes, we’ve discussed this type of science and research on this blog many times, and honestly we seem to be at loggerheads. But perhaps in another 10 or 20 or 50 years we’ll look back on statements like the one made by Schoennagel and say “Duh, of course that’s true.”

  3. Very few folks in Boulder had actually seen the logging that was being done for “fuel reduction.” Those of us who work on the forest issue are always talking about things like this, but your average folks whose only experience in the woods is an occasional hike in a protected area, are often in the dark about the subject. And most media stories on the topic are told entirely from the perspective of industry and pro-logging enviros.

  4. OK, you got it.

    The question is whether fuel treatments can be effective in changing fire behavior by providing space for crews to work, by causing a crown fire to drop, to simply be not as hot due to lower fuel loadings, etc.

    “Recent science has challenged these assumptions, demonstrating that wild fires, including large, catastrophic ones, were historically quite common in Colorado and that large fires are more a product of drought, high temperatures and wind than fuel levels. Studies have shown that large wildfires are often just as likely to burn through clearcuts devoid of most fuels, as they are through densely-stocked forests.”

    A. It doesn’t matter how common they were before if you want to change wildfire behavior.
    B. I guess it depends on your definition of “large”.. but that is a statement that strikes me as very hard to scientifically validate. When I see words like “often” “just as likely” and “large”, they would be key questions. We do have actual photos of clearcuts “not burning,” though..
    http://www.rangemagazine.com/features/fall-11/range-fa11-clearcuts.pdf

    Also if you have dead lodgepole or mostly dead lodgepole, how could you do a fuels treatment without it being a clearcut in the sense of having no standing trees? Because if you leave some they might tend to blow over.

    Oh, and the quote from Romme
    “While beetle-killed trees in the Rockies have been impossible to ignore, Bill Romme, who teaches forest and fire ecology at Colorado State University, says there is “little or no such relationship between beetle-caused tree mortality and subsequent fire occurrence and severity in lodgepole pine forests,” as quoted in an article written for NASA’s Earth Observatory.”

    But as we have said before, that’s not really the question “whether there are more fires after bark beetles and (there are many ways to measure severity).” The question is simply “do piles of dead trees make it easier or harder to keep fires out of communities?”.. for that we would have to ask fire suppression experts.

    As Scott says, some people like to have fuel treatments around their subdivisions and others don’t. Some agitate to have fuel treatments around their houses but then complain when log trucks go through the community. As was pointed out before in the Boulder area, sometimes people want them, but don’t want enough fuels removed to do any good. There are all kinds of opinions out there that do not match with each other.

    And there is an active environmental set of folks in Colorado who are perfectly capable of appealing and litigating if they judge the conditions favorable (or if the project has mistakes of various kinds), so it’s not like these projects are unwatched.

    “We have learned that forest thinning is rarely effective under extreme burning conditions, and the severity of fire in adjacent forests has little to do with whether a home burns,” says Tania Schoennagel research scientist at University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and co-author of a new study titled Learning to Coexist with Wildfire.

    Hmm. again what are “severe burning conditions”… many flood prevention tactics might be helpful but not in “severe flooding conditions.” “Severity of fire in adjacent forests has little to do with whether a home burns.” Well, we could imagine that whether a home burns has a lot to do with fire suppression activities, and home treatments, the existence of fuel breaks around the subdivision, and so on. If fire suppression didn’t have a lot to do with “whether a home burns”.. I guess we wouldn’t have to spend all that money on it! Good news for everyone!
    Then the question is whether nature and condition of fuels has an impact of success of fire suppression. People on the ground tend to think that this is the case. Also studies show that it CAN BE the case but IS NOT ALWAYS the case.

    You don’t have to be an expert to see that sometimes we choose preventative actions in public policy that generally work but don’t always work. Like say flu shots. Sometimes the people who project the strains for the winter do better than other years. would we say “science tells us not to get flu shots because they don’t always work?” So it has to do with the likelihood of it working, and the costs if it doesn’t. This sounds like something JFSP would fund… but the idea of fuel conditions affecting fire behavior and suppression tactics does not seem particularly controversial within the fire community- so maybe they haven’t.

    • “The question is whether fuel treatments can be effective in changing fire behavior by providing space for crews to work, by causing a crown fire to drop, to simply be not as hot due to lower fuel loadings, etc.”

      “But as we have said before, that’s not really the question “whether there are more fires after bark beetles and (there are many ways to measure severity).” The question is simply “do piles of dead trees make it easier or harder to keep fires out of communities?”.. for that we would have to ask fire suppression experts.

      Sharon, I’m not sure who the “we” that you refer to is, but the idea that the questions you pose (which relate only to fire suppression) are “the” only questions is overly simplistic. The original article did indeed discuss fuel treatments around communities, but also large projects billed as fuel treatments that occur far away from communities. The Forest Service likes to lump all these together to take advantage of public fear of wildfires, even where it may not be justified, but why should we? It’s hard to find any recent project EA or EIS that doesn’t contain the same boilerplate language about “unnatural fire conditions” resulting from “years of fire suppression” (plus beetle infestation), posing the imminent threat of “catastrophic wildfire.” Maybe true sometimes, sometimes maybe not (and it’s always interesting that, after pointing out how decades of improper management have led to this problem, the agency says don’t worry you can trust us now). Certainly there’s plenty of scientific literature showing how crown fire potential, as just one example, varies tremendously over the course of a MPB infestation and in the years afterward, including how “gray stage” (not red) trees may actually have significantly reduced crown fire potential compared to their green counterparts.

      Focusing only on dominant tree species as an indicator of diversity (as you seem to suggest below) is also excessively limiting. Forest diversity has many components besides simply what timber species are there (I’m think that’s what Brian Stout is talking about when he refers to forest communities).

      This one’s pretty interesting (Forecasting Impacts of Mountain Pine Beetle on Lodgepole Pine Forests: http://www.cfc.umt.edu/CESU/Reports/NPS/CSU/2008/08_09Rocca_ROMO_pine%20beetle_lodgepole%20final%20rpt.pdf

      This one looks good too, though I haven’t read it yet (Ecological Integrity Assessment:
      Rocky Mountain Lodgepole Pine Forest) http://www1.dnr.wa.gov/nhp/refdesk/communities/pdf/eia/rm_lodgepole.pdf

  5. I’m not a big fan of clearcuts but, at least the one in the picture looks like it was carried out well. I don’t see a lot of gouges or soil movement. It looks like enough was left on the ground to carry it through until plants get re-established. I also saw clearcuts in the Biscuit Fire that didn’t burn…. right next to untouched old growth, with 100% mortality. Rare, but not that rare.

  6. With 34 years experience in the U.S. Forest Service I must suggest that the clear-cutting proposed by the FS is a short range solution that will only exacerbate the problem in the future. Certainly the proposed action will reduce current fuel levels for immediate reductions in fire hazards. The areas treated will regenerate with pioneer species of single age classes and single species in most cases. Diversity will be lost for centuries. The best approach is to focus on maximizing diversity by developing prescriptions for the unique individual forest communities. The first step is to identify these unique communities which are determined by the physical characteristics of the land, such as soil types, soil characteristics, slope position, aspect. slope, etc. This is what I call, “Reading the Land”. Individual prescriptions are then developed for each unit and designed to create healthy vigorous and unique stands of trees. We can not bomb-proof our forested lands but we can reduce the risk of catastrophic events by focusing on maximizing diversity. When we are finally able to observe the complexity of creation, the complexity of nature, the complexity of our forests; we will be able to professionally manage our remaining valuable forested lands. FORESTS are a mosaic of individual forest communities, constantly changing as a result of human demands on them. In 2007 the Report On Abuse, suggests that one single tree over a 50 years life cycle contributes $162,00.00 to the human environment. WHAT WE DO TO OUR FORESTS WE DO TO OURSELVES! My website presents information intended to help our forest scientists change the future of management of our remaining valuable forest lands.

  7. Brian, I think in some cases there is pretty much all lodgepole now on some sites. So if you want diversity in those cases, I guess you’d have to plant those species, and I’m not sure we really know how to do that very well on these high-elevation sites.. I wouldn’t put money into it… Lodgepole can be pretty successful at coming in compared to other species no matter whether you cut them all down or let them fall on their own or leave some that may or may not live. It depends on the site, like you said, but since folks have prescriptions for each site, I would assume they did consider that when they planned this (the one in the photo).

  8. “If they cut trees in an attempt to prevent wildfire, they’ll be criticized by those who’d rather see nature take its course. If they do nothing and a wildfire ignites, they’ll be blamed for that, too. Fitzwilliams says there’s science and emotion on all sides of the issue, and adds “we’re going to have to make some choices that are sometimes hard to swallow.””

    I wonder what the forest plan says about these areas. And whether that is where choices need to be “swallowed.”

    • The forest plan is fairly new but pre-beetle. That’s why some of us prefer the Stahl KISS planning rule, because forest plans can’t keep up with reality (and to mix threads, if it’s really all about ESA and required standards, then let’s just have those in a looseleaf binder).

      • Plans are actually required to keep up with reality by NFMA, “when conditions in a unit have significantly changed.” Congress just doesn’t see it as a priority to fund that.

        And continuing off the thread, I absolutely agree that if you’ve got new restrictions because of species at risk, those should be easy to add to the plan (using a CE at most). The new provision for “administrative changes” allows a simple public notice procedure to update plans for “conformance of the plan to new statutory or regulatory requirements…” I’d like to see the Forest Service exploring its use in these kinds of situations.

        We kicked that around in relation to new planning rules, but apparently CEQ didn’t want to concede any of its NEPA . And so plan amendments are still too hard to do and plans are overtaken by reality. There is a provision

  9. Actually from the picture of the clear cuts it does look like they left some patches of trees, maybe these are of a different species.
    I use to think that lodgepole pine forests grew at certain elevation where other trees wouldn’t grow. The I started noticing stands of Douglas fir higher up than the lodgepole and guessed that if had more to do with soil and fire.
    One interesting things is that they could afford to haul off the pine for biofuel. We can’t hardly give away fuel here in Southwestern Oregon, I think it is down to 3.00 a ton or so.
    Also the clearcut would be the first step in reforestation and fire control. (I also assuming that most of the trees clearcut were dead.) I would think you would have replanting,(hopefully mixed species) and then thinning as your next management goals.
    Seems like forests grow very slowly in Colorado so I hope who ever is responsible for these forests management, has the long view.
    Since the Forest Service decided fire was natural and intricate part of forest ecology, (and harvesting trees isn’t), there has been a build up of fuel, and an outbreak of catastrophic wildfires. The Forest Service has probably burned up more old growth in the last 20 years then in it’s entire history.

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