Another Confusing Roadless Story: Aspens, Intervention, and Upper Tier

Scott Fitzwilliams, left, and Glenn Adams discuss the health of an aspen grove in the White River National Forest near Silt, Colorado. Photo by Michael Brands.

Thanks again to Terry Seyden for this catch!

It’s a bit hard to tell in this news story, but the story is about a couple of different things that if you weren’t following this story closely, might be confusing. I will try to help.

Chain saw environmentalism at cutting edge of forest fight

Aspen, Colo. • Here is the next front in America’s fight for its Western forests.

Too late to head off a wave of climate-fueled beetles that have altered the evergreen landscape for generations — if not forever — foresters still believe they can rejuvenate this resort town’s namesake. They say the white bark and fluttering yellow heart-shaped leaves that announce fall in the Rocky Mountains are due for a pruning.

It’s chain saw environmentalism, and some of the West’s most ardent wilderness lovers have signed on. They face strong opposition from groups that believe Mother Nature can best repair her own, and their struggle over how best to legally protect untrammeled wild lands will profoundly shape the future of these hills.

“It’s no longer as easy as just saying wilderness is good and everything else is bad,” said John Bennett, a former Aspen mayor and current executive director of the advocacy group For the Forest.

Will aspen shoots — food to elk and other cherished Rocky Mountain wildlife — keep springing from the slopes in a warming and drying region? Can they without human help?

Government foresters want to start cutting down swaths of century-old aspens in hopes that young “suckers” will sprout from the roots to build a new forest. It’s how many of the aspens would have reproduced naturally during the 1900s had Americans allowed fire to scour more of the old trees from the land.

Today, there is some urgency because a widespread collapse that accelerated during a 2004-08 drought foreshadowed dire predictions of climate-linked losses over the next 50 years. The die-off blighted nearly a fifth of Colorado’s aspen stands, researchers say, thinning about a quarter of the forest crown in most of them with precious little regrowth.

Cutting aspens now, in the absence of drought, could regrow vigorous young trees before the next dry spell strikes.

“We certainly don’t have any silver bullets,” said Jim Worrall, a U.S. Forest Service Forest Health Protection pathologist in Gunnison, Colo., who studied the past decade’s so-called Sudden Aspen Decline syndrome. “But we do know that aspen stands less than about 40 years old were not really affected by Sudden Aspen Decline.”

Thus, cutting for regrowth is a prescription that’s taken firm root with foresters and opened a divide among environmentalists who might have unified against logging — if not for the wild card of climate change.

“Nature knows best,” said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Colorado’s Wilderness Workshop and a skeptic of the rush into forest interventions. He supports efforts to clear beetle-killed pines posing fire hazards and watershed threats around communities, but believes the aspens and other trees deep in the woods should adapt on their own.

“History is writ with many examples of humans monkeying in natural systems that have gone awry.”

OK, so the above is a question about cutting aspen for the purpose of trying to regenerate them.

That’s why Shoemaker and others with a more traditional wilderness ethic favor a hotly debated revision of Colorado’s roadless forest rule. The state and U.S. Forest Service are considering local changes to a nationwide 2001 rule protecting pristine forests from road construction, and one of several proposals under review would tighten restrictions considerably. It would generally ban tree cutting on 2.6 million acres of “upper-tier” protection zones — two-thirds of the state’s roadless areas.

Millions of acres of dead pines and spruces naturally give aspens new areas to colonize, Shoemaker said, while foresters seem fixated on old aspen stands in areas that aren’t likely to support them in the future. They want to prevent oak brush and other dryland species from taking over slopes that he believes are becoming ill-suited to aspens.

This next section is related to the aspen question because the “upper tier” acreage in the Proposed Colorado Rule does not allow tree cutting for wildlife habitat improvement, or restoration of endangered or sensitive species (fyi, aspen isn’t endangered or sensitive but it is good for wildlife). Note, this is not road building, it is tree cutting.. so people would have to walk in with chainsaws (or ride in on OHV’s) and drop the trees.

This aspect of the Upper Tier designation is of concern to some wildlife-oriented individuals as they may see the need for some cutting and burning to restore wildlife habitat in key corridors so animals can move (and also migrate based on future climate change).
Below is a quote from Colorado Roadless Q&A’s here.

“The Upper Tier designation was added based on public concern that exceptions found in the previous proposal would allow roads and tree cutting anywhere within CRAs. On Upper Tier acres, requirements are more restrictive than under the 2001 rule. The exceptions allow only road construction and reconstruction as allowed by statutes or treaties, and reserved or outstanding rights; and tree-cutting incidental to an activity not prohibited by the Colorado Roadless Rule and for personal or administrative use. ”

So now back to the news story.

“Trying to freeze an aspen stand in time,” he said, “is fighting nature.”

Sitting pretty

Others who love wilderness, and indeed moved here to live among it, point to the bark-beetle infestation — which stripped more than 6 million acres of Colorado evergreens — as evidence such hard-line protections are outdated.

“I’m a total wilderness advocate,” said Tom Cardamone, who moved here to work on a student-led wilderness campaign in 1972 and now directs the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies [ACES]. “Also, I recognize the increasing importance of hands-on forest management.”

ACES has a staff of naturalists whose mission statement seeks to nurture lifelong commitments to the Earth while “restoring the balance of natural communities.” Defining and championing proper balance can be difficult in a resort community where most residents moved because they liked things just the way they were — a problem Cardamone calls “the challenge of the perception of the pristine.”

If a place looks nice and attracts hikers and mountain bikers, he said, they don’t necessarily weigh whether its ecology is out of whack. Locals have battled the center’s efforts to restore a stretch of the Roaring Fork River from gravel mining and an alpine bog from peat removal, he said, because the areas remained pretty. Both projects went forward, and now both are hailed as ecological successes.

So it is with struggling forests, Cardamone believes. Residents don’t like the idea of roads and heavy equipment trudging through pristine wilderness, but “I’m also concerned about the damage of climate change to pristine wilderness.”

Confusing, because now we are not talking about Colorado Roadless nor upper tier. No one is proposing building roads for aspen treatments in roadless.

The bark beetles that have munched through at least 40 million acres of Western evergreens since 1997 served a warning. Aided by warming winters and lengthening summers, they attacked forests that were effectively overpopulated. Individual trees competed for soil moisture and daylight to steel themselves against the onslaught, and when it was too late for people to react on a landscape level, foresters started thinning trees in an effort to save favored recreation spots or reduce fire hazards.

The question now is whether active management would avoid a similar collapse among another key forest species, or whether it’s futile to play God. Which lesson should be taken?

Dangers of drought

Aspens host their own species of native bark beetles, and those can find heightened success during droughts. But it is the drought itself — heat coupled with drying soils — that scientists believe threatens to shrink aspen range, currently stretching along the Rockies from Mexico to Alaska.

The Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station has used greenhouse-gas projections to estimate that up to half the suitable aspen range in the central Rockies will vanish under something like permanent drought by 2060, eliminating low-elevation stands.

Some ecologists believe aspens are resilient, though, and argue that something besides logging could help them thrive.

“The prime culprits are the rising elk populations in the West and, in some cases, livestock,” said Paul Rogers, director of Utah State University’s Western Aspen Alliance. Hunting more elk, restoring wolves to push them around and better managing livestock, he said, would help aspen sprouts survive in many places.

Rogers doubts Sudden Aspen Decline is as widespread as others say. He doesn’t question that, for instance, 17 percent of Colorado’s aspen stands suffered in the past drought, but he doesn’t believe the roots are dead in most of those. Protect the areas from overgrazing and browsing, he said, and many would spring back. Aspens have expanded and contracted with previous climate shifts.

Logging trees, as the Forest Service wants, would stimulate new growth, Rogers said. But none of the sprouts would climb past “mouth-high” if wildlife and livestock aren’t managed accordingly.

“Don’t do anything,” he warned, “unless you have a way to protect [new growth] afterward.”

I’m not an expert on aspen decline, but it seems like it should be pretty clear if “sprouts are not coming up” or “sprouts are coming up and being eaten.” Certainly if you are successful at “sprouts coming up” you would have to manage “sprouts being eaten.” Not sure how this relates, unless it is impossible to manage “sprouts being eaten” so why spend money to help “sprouts come up?”

But to be relevant to the Upper Tier Roadless question, you would have to say that there are no situations for wildlife for any tree species that could be helped by tree falling -ever. Again, going from the specific to the general is a bit confusing.

Buying time

If fire suppression has built aspen forests that are unnaturally old and uniform in age, shaking them up makes sense to Cardamone. Doing so might stimulate young aspens and buy the forest time for humans to slow climate change.

Roadless protections for their own sake, he said, aren’t the ultimate goal anymore.

“Road or no road, if all the trees are dead because we didn’t do something wise,” Cardamone said, “we may regret that.”

That’s the plea echoing around the White River National Forest, which surrounds Aspen and shelters the nation’s largest elk herd. District rangers and Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams fear that if public pressure leads their agency bosses to choose the most restrictive alternative for their new roadless rule, the forest will shrivel. It’s not even about roads, he said, because the agency could cut trees without building any — if the roadless rule allows.

“We’re losing our aspen pretty quickly in this part of the world,” Fitzwilliams said on a recent drive into the Divide Creek Basin. And more than half the forest there is aspen, mostly tall, stout, old.

Eighty percent are mature to “overmature,” he said.

Fitzwilliams drove up dirt roads past elaborate hunting camps of tents and buses — even one big rig hauled into the woods to outfit enthusiasts — showing what draws elk hunters here, and what he believes is at stake.

Elk thrive among aspens, but here and there along Divide Creek, century-old trees are toppling under their own weight, with nothing but grass growing under them. Eventually, without active management, he believes spruces and firs will fill in some of these gaps, squeezing out elk and deer. Oak brush will creep up other slopes.

And Divide Creek, it turns out, is among those zones that his crews couldn’t touch if the Forest Service designates 2.6 million acres for full roadless protections. Step off the existing roads, Fitzwilliams said, and you couldn’t cut a tree in the name of forest health. “If this all becomes upper-tier roadless, I’m out of business.”

Those stricter protections are what the Pitkin County Commission, based in Aspen, requested in its official comments to the agency, and it’s a popular stand among lots of politicians in ski country. But Fitzwilliams has been trying to change minds.

“I’ve joked with the Town Council that they need to change [Aspen’s] name to Spruce-Fir,” he said.

‘Hidden gems’

Beyond ecology, Fitzwilliams said, there’s an economy and a people at stake.

West central Colorado’s wilds are interwoven with a string of ski resorts, highways, electric lines and forested homes. Further limitations on tree thinning would risk catastrophic fire.

Those are fears that many wilderness lovers share, and they accept logging around the edges to improve safety. But many also push not just for more roadless protections, but also for new congressionally designated wilderness areas to limit most man-made disturbances.

They’re pushing a campaign called “Hidden Gems” to expand wilderness areas by 342,000 acres in this part of Colorado, effectively moving the protected zones farther downhill into areas considered important winter range for wildlife.

Outdoor photographer Steven DeWitt, of Eagle County, Colo., is a hiking and snowboarding enthusiast who holds wildlands dear. He sees the need for action near towns and highways, he said, but “what we’ve got for wilderness now is all we’ve got left.”

The pine forest’s rapid decline saddened DeWitt to the point that he has been shooting photos since 2007 for a planned online essay that he hopes will motivate Americans to deal with climate change. But in the backcountry, he prefers to see forests regenerate on their own.

Chain saw environmentalism isn’t for him. Rooting around in wild places sets a precedent.

“It’s a bad cocktail,” he said of Forest Service hopes for logging the roadless areas. “Everybody’s good intentions before anything is cut are great, but a road in a wilderness is a bad idea.”

It seems like Scott Fitzwilliams valiantly keeps saying “we are not talking about roads, we are only talking about the ability to cut trees” but then others are quoted as “roads are bad and you shouldn’t have them.”

I think it would be really hard to understand what the issue is from reading this story. It would also have been a better story if the author had quoted someone from the wildlife community who are concerned about the prohibitions in the Upper Tier.
Some people might say that the Upper Tier acres are “more protective than the 2001” because they don’t allow tree cutting for wildlife habitat or endangered species.. yet what are you really “protecting” by not allowing those actions? Certainly not wildlife, nor endangered species. It’s all rather ideological, and not very real, IMHO.

Further, I don’t think it’s accurate to say you are “logging”, when the material is not removed (because there are no roads). You may be “cutting” but using that darn dictionary again (Merriam Webster online):

transitive verb
1 a : to cut (trees) for lumber b : to clear (land) of trees in lumbering.”

It’s also interesting everyone quoted in the story agrees on a need for tree cutting around towns and highways.

3 thoughts on “Another Confusing Roadless Story: Aspens, Intervention, and Upper Tier”

  1. It’s also interesting how this example, like so many others posted on NCFP, follows the now familiar theme of focusing upon the controversy around management intervention on the EFFECTS of climate change — which even managers admit may, or may not be efficacious — instead of focusing on intervention in the CAUSES of climate change.

    It’s akin to a doctor coming upon an accident scene where the victim is dying of
    blood loss but gets treatment for broken teeth because the doctor is a dentist.

    The US Dept. of Energy recently calculated, as reported by the Associated Press earlier this month, in an article titled, “Biggest Jump Ever Seen in Global Warming Gases”:

    “The global output of heat trapping carbon dioxide jumped by the biggest amount on record…” (snip) “The new figures for 2010 mean that levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago.”

    Just four years ago.

    That worst case scenario forecast global temperatures rising 4 to 11 degrees F. by the end of the century.

    The now familiar theme of NCFP articles highlighting the questionable efficacy of management intervention on the effects of climate change — instead of highlighting efficacious interventions on the anthropogenic causation of climate change — will only help provide a worse case scenario far sooner than the end of this New Century of Forest Planning.

  2. I’m sure the above enviros have no problem with “logging” in “untrameled” roadless areas if that entails the cutting of MPB killed deadfall across hiking trails. And there’s soon to be lots of that in Colorado. So who’s with me when I demand “not one chainsaw in Roadless!” I hear crickets. The White River Forest has plans to fall hazard trees approx. 75′ on either side of 900 miles of trails “outside” of IRA’s (wasn’t that what they used to call “strip clearcuts”). In IRA’s there will be a “warning sign” posted at the boundary (I love this one).I assume those trails inside IRA’s will be cleared of deadfall by trail crews. I also assume the sheer volume will result in much backlog.

    It does beg the useless question “how many miles of trails in IRA’s and Wilderness will be impacted with MPB deadfall”. Could you imagine chopping your way through deadfall with an axe? I wonder how many “less popular” trails, especially within labor intensive wilderness areas,will fall by the wayside. Now that’s what I call really untrameled. Could be the best thing for the Lynx.I know one thing-budget money will go to clearing roads and powerlines first.

    That said-I don’t have a problem with clearing trails in IRA’s. I agree with those above who think it’s a waste of time and money for the USFS to do non-commercial logging. Since the USFS got out of the timber business, it does a lot of what I call “pop forestry” (remember that old term “Pop psychology”). The new favorite treatment is “slashing small diameter pine in Aspen and meadows followed by prescribed burning”. The particular “project” I’m thinking of is on a forest that logs only 1% in 30 years. It begs the question: why don’t you just wait and sometime in the next 20 years the inevitable wildfire is going to come along and do the work for you?”. Do they have no concept of scale? This is on a forest that has a hard time “paying for” the NEPA on a MPB salvage timber sale in the WUI where it would do some good. I’m a big fan of “pre-commercial” thinning.I love to see the “release” in diameter growth. But if you’re doing it on a National forest that logs 20% in the next century-who cares about growing trees for the future? Put the money to use where it will do some good now.

    If you want to know why State Forests make so much money compared to the USFS-one of the reasons is the State Forests NEVER fool around with “non-commercial” pop forestry soley for the sake of demonstrating the hip new groovy thing in restoration forestry. Especially if it’s going to impact a miniscule part of the landscape.

    Aspen Colorado will get it’s Aspen when the wildfires come through.

  3. I think that ideas about cutting mature aspen trees seem pretty heavy-handed. In my three week assignment to Idaho a few years ago, to survey aspen stands, I saw quite a variety of patches. Some of them quite mature and thriving. Some recovering, and some needing help. They are absolutely right about protecting them when new clones are sprouting, as everything browses them. I was placed in a position to find, sample and evaluate, as well as make recommendations about ensuring their recovery/protection. Of course, the drier sites had less vigor, and the spring areas so common in aspen patches draws in the browsers/grazers. The surveys were in advance of a new grazing plan.

    On my last trip to the Utah/Arizona area, I saw thick regeneration of aspen in a recent high-intensity burn areas, within the Grand Canyon National Park. All the conifers were killed but, some pictures I took show ample clones coming up. Those forests in the park are “upsidedown”, with wetter fir/spruce/aspen forests at lower elevations and ponderosa pine up higher. They are truly majestic and fascinating, but ultimately overstocked in places. Their controlled burns have mortality as a primary goal. It sounds odd but that is their only way of reducing tree density.


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