Working to see the forest for the trees: Logging project's 'messy phase' will give rise to diverse, healthy ecosystem
Winter is upon us here in the Roaring Fork Valley, but there’s a lot that has to happen before the snow really starts piling up.
For the White River National Forest, one important item to check off the to-do list is a logging project the U.S. Forest Service is working on up the Fryingpan, about 40 miles from Basalt, near the Coke Ovens State Wildlife Area.
If you have driven up the Fryingpan toward Lyle Lake, you have probably noticed the project. It’s a patch of land with no trees.
Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner acknowledges that the cleared landscape is a dramatic contrast to the sprawling stands of lodgepole pines that make up much of the upper Fryingpan, and it will look that way for quite some time.
“If I drive my kids up here or next time we go up to Lyle Lake, they're going to ask me, ‘Dad, why the hell why did you do that?’ Because, you know, it looks different,” he said.
The lodgepoles that used to be there were over a century old. Warner said that old age is not necessarily a good thing.
“The intent from the Forest Service really is to regenerate a younger forest in this 40 acres that complements the surrounding forest around us,” he said.
In order to be resilient to all kinds of situations, Warner said forests should be diverse, particularly when it comes to the age of the trees.
By having a variety of ages in a forest, different trees will be more or less resilient in the face of threats such as disease, invasive beetle infestations and wildfires. For example, certain beetles could prefer older trees, but younger trees are more likely to burn at a higher severity in a wildfire.
Having a mix of young and old trees allows the whole forest ecosystem to recover when one of these events occurs.
The goal of this project is to clear cut about 40 acres of lodgepole pine. And it requires relatively few personnel. For the felling stage, just one person in the cab of a machine called a feller-buncher can do the job.
When the lodgepoles get cut down, the reseeding process begins almost immediately, according to Chris McDonald, a forester with the White River National Forest.
“After they drop the trees, there should be enough of the cones that fall off and remain in place,” he said. “And then the summer heat and sunshine will open the cones, releasing the seed.”
But it’s a long process. It’ll take about four years to see any real growth from saplings — and decades for mature trees.
“So, it'll look like a sea of Christmas trees in 10 to 30 years, basically, and then after that, they’ll take off and grow to larger, full size trees,” he said. “They’re mature at 80 to 100 years. They’re one of our shorter-lived trees. Our spruce fir can grow 300 to 500 years.”
And when you have a very old stand of lodgepole pines, they get really dense, Warner pointed out.
“As you can see, there is very little sunlight getting to the floor of this forest because they're packed in really tight,” he said.
That kind of density almost creates a desert in the understory, with very little sunlight getting through and very few species adapted to those conditions. Clearing out the older trees, Warner said, allows for younger trees, as well as different species, such as aspens, to move in and create more diversity. And it benefits those understory residents as well.
“Snowshoe hare rely on needles for their food source,” he said. “And so what they really like to see is a varied height of trees, of smaller, younger trees, that they can still get to those needles at different heights of snow as the winter progresses.”
So why not perform a prescribed burn to clear out this patch of the forest?
That’s something the Forest Service has done here in the valley in the past, with benefits to forest health, including revegetation. But this area of the forest, about 10,000 feet in elevation and with some very sharp slopes, creates challenges with prescribed burns.
Warner said that prior to such a fire, they would need to bring in a bulldozer or a piece of equipment called a masticator to create very strong fire lines to prevent the prescribed burn from spreading.
“Even then, you would have to be operating within some extremely tight weather windows that would allow for the fire to actually do the work that it needs to do in here, and then not transport into the areas that we're not looking to treat,” he said. “So it'd be a tough one.”
There is also the benefit of what happens to the trees once they are felled.
A piece of equipment called a skidder drags the trees to a huge wood chipper, which grinds the trees into small pieces, probably about 3 to 4 inches apiece — a relatively fine grind.
Semitrucks haul the wood chips to the biomass plant in Gypsum, where they are turned into steam power for Holy Cross Energy. Power that comes from these wood chips counts toward Holy Cross’ goal to get 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
Warner said one of the hardest parts of his job is explaining the benefits of the project to the public — especially when the work doesn’t look like a pretty picture in its early stages.
“You know, it's kind of like a remodel of your kitchen,” he said. “You’ve got to get a little messy to get that really nice product at the end. So that's kind of the situation we're in right now. This is the messy phase.”
If things go according to plan, all wood products will be removed from the site in the next couple of weeks. And over the next century, instead of a kitchen, we’ll have a healthy lodgepole stand up the Fryingpan — with trees of all ages.