Feds are mov­ing for­ward with novel ap­proach

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Jen­nifer Old­ham

Hik­ers climb­ing above tree line in Wy­oming’s Medicine Bow Na­tional For­est en­counter a star­tling land­scape: the gray skele­tons of mil­lions of dead lodge­pole pines.

It’s on these slopes of the Rocky Moun­tains that the U.S. For­est Ser­vice would pi­o­neer a novel ap­proach to rid forests of the de­tri­tus from “epi­demic lev­els” of bee­tle in­fes­ta­tions that wiped out 38,000 square miles of trees — an area larger than the state of Maine. What’s left fu­els his­toric wild­fires, pre­vents wildlife and cat­tle from finding for­age, threat­ens to top­ple onto camp­sites and slows re­gen­er­a­tion of trees needed to sus­tain the be­lea­guered tim­ber in­dus­try.

The plan would al­low con­struc­tion of up to 600 miles of tem­po­rary roads to log, thin and set pre­scribed burns across 850,000 rugged acres from the Colorado-Wy­oming border north across the Snowy and Sierra Madre ranges.

The con­tro­ver­sial 15-year pro­ject, a marked de­par­ture from the agency’s his­tor­i­cal ap­proach to restora­tion, is mov­ing for­ward as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump blames the dead­li­est wild­fire in Cal­i­for­nia’s his­tory on “gross mis­man­age­ment of the forests” — a widely dis­puted al­le­ga­tion.

“This is a new way of do­ing busi­ness — it’s unique for us not only in terms of size but the amount of col­lab­o­ra­tion,” said Melissa Martin, plan­ning and in­for­ma­tion pro­gram man­ager for Medicine Bow. “This is about pro­vid­ing re­siliency for the fu­ture, so we don’t wind up in a sit­u­a­tion 100 years from now (like) we find our­selves in to­day.” That sit­u­a­tion is bleak. A gen­er­a­tions-old pol­icy of fire sup­pres­sion and re­duced tim­ber har­vests caused stressed, over­stocked forests that were un­able to fend off moun­tain pine bee­tles and spruce bark bee­tles.

Both in­sects bore through bark to lay their eggs, and the lar­vae that hatch spend the win­ter in place, emerg­ing only when fully grown to be­gin the cy­cle anew the next sum­mer. Their ac­tiv­ity se­verely dis­rupts a tree’s nu­tri­ent sys­tem.

Un­leashed by drought and warm win­ters — both tied to cli­mate change — the rice-size in­sects have at­tacked huge swaths of the Rock­ies, Te­tons, Cas­cades and Sierra Ne­vada since the 1990s.

Nearly half the lands man­aged by the U.S. For­est Ser­vice, or 81.3 mil­lion acres, needs at­ten­tion.

Their poor con­di­tion, in com­bi­na­tion with a suc­ces­sion of wild­fire sea­sons un­prece­dented in their dead­li­ness and de­struc­tion, is forc­ing a reck­on­ing among fed­eral agen­cies, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, tim­ber com­pa­nies, ranch­ers, out­door en­thu­si­asts and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

“Ex­pan­sive work is needed to re­duce fu­els and threats from in­sects and dis­eases,” wrote For­est Ser­vice Chief Vicki Chris­tiansen af­ter Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Sonny Per­due an­nounced a new man­age­ment strat­egy in Au­gust. “Poor con­di­tions de­mand treat­ments at a scale that match the im­men­sity of the prob­lem,” she added. “But we can’t do it alone.”

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, who have of­ten bat­tled the gov­ern­ment on the is­sue, agree that Wash­ing­ton must speed ef­forts to cull bee­tle kill in forests up to five times denser than a cen­tury ago.

Tin­der-dry dead trees jeop­ar­dize the pu­rity of wa­ter sup­plies for parched cities and the lives and prop­erty of mil­lions of peo­ple who live in what’s known as the wild­land-ur­ban in­ter­face — ar­eas prone to wild­fires.

“If we are go­ing to have a chance at com­bat­ing cli­mate change, forests are one of our best tools for mit­i­ga­tion be­cause they se­quester car­bon,” said Chris Topik, di­rec­tor of the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy’s Restor­ing Amer­ica’s Forests ini­tia­tive. “So it’s vi­tal that we help them to adapt.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s shift to decades-long man­age­ment plans en­com­pass­ing vast stretches is in stark con­trast to the For­est Ser­vice’s his­tor­i­cal prac­tice of groom­ing 3,000- to 10,000-acre parcels over a pe­riod of months.

In New Mex­ico, the agency is pre­par­ing an en­vi­ron­men­tal re­port for the 185,586-acre Luna Restora­tion Pro­ject in the Gila Na- tional For­est.

Work on the 179,054-acre La Garita Hills Restora­tion Pro­ject in Colorado’s Rio Grande Na­tional For­est is un­der­way.

The Medicine Bow pro­ject would au­tho­rize clearcut­ting on up to 95,000 acres, se­lec­tive log­ging on up to 165,000 acres, and other treat­ments such as pre­scribed fire and hand thin­ning on up to an­other 100,000 acres. Martin said fund­ing could come from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and other sources.

Not ev­ery­one con­sid­ers the plan a good idea. Some bi­ol­o­gists say sci­ence doesn’t back up the ef­fi­cacy of the treat­ments pro­posed, par­tic­u­larly log­ging and the pre­scribed burns that the For­est Ser­vice calls nec­es­sary for lodge­pole pine to re­pro­duce and more di­verse species to take root.

“They say they are go­ing to re­duce fuel loads to limit wild­fires, and the lit­er­a­ture doesn’t sup­port that,” said Daniel Tin­ker, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Wy­oming who has stud­ied the re­gion for 23 years. “We’ve had fires this sum­mer that burned through ar­eas that were clear-cut 15 years ago. Those stands weren’t sup­posed to burn for 100 years.”

Con­ser­va­tion groups also say the For­est Ser­vice trun­cated sci­en­tific re­view in a rush to meet con­gres­sional de­mands for in­creased tim­ber pro­duc­tion on pub­lic lands.

For now, the pro­posal does not spec­ify which parcels would be tar­geted and where those hun­dreds of miles of road would be built.

“They are try­ing to fast­track this,” said Marla Fox, an at­tor­ney for WildEarth Guardians. “This is in line with the agency’s shift and ap­proach un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to ‘get out the cut,’ which means ‘let’s do some log­ging in the name of restora­tion.’ ”

In­deed, the na­tional har­vest in fis­cal 2018 was ex­pected to be the big­gest in 20 years, the For­est Ser­vice’s Chris­tiansen told the Se­nate Com­mit­tee on En­ergy and Nat­u­ral Re­sources in June.

Sup­port­ing the tim­ber in­dus­try is among the Medicine Bow plan’s goals, Martin said, but she added, “I wouldn’t say that tim­ber in­ter­est takes prece­dent over any other in­ter­est.”

As many as 180 cat­tle and sheep ranches use the for­est for graz­ing, ac­cord­ing to Jim Ma­gagna, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Wy­oming Stock Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, which sup­ports the pro­ject.

Dead trees cost ranch­ers money and time when they fall and knock down fences.

Some push­back is in­ter­nal. A group of For­est Ser­vice em­ploy­ees is skep­ti­cal the agency can pull off an un­der­tak­ing of this size, cit­ing the fund­ing and in­fra­struc­ture chal­lenges that have slowed a mas­sive restora­tion ini­tia­tive in Ari­zona. That 2.4 mil­lion-acre part­ner­ship is har­vest­ing pon­derosa pine across four na­tional forests. Only about 106,000 acres were treated be­tween fis­cal 2010 and fis­cal 2017.

“It’s naive to think that all of the biomass that the For­est Ser­vice wants to re­move, whether by burn­ing, haul­ing or chip­ping it on site, is go­ing to pay for its way,” said Andy Stahl, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of For­est Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees for En­vi­ron­men­tal Ethics. “Cer­tainly, pre­scribed burn­ing doesn’t pay its way — it’s ex­pen­sive at around $100,000 per acre.”

The agency is sched­uled to make a de­ci­sion on the Medicine Bow plan in mid2019.

If ap­proved, it could pro­vide lessons on how to help the West’s over­grown forests weather cli­mate change and fire.

“The U.S. For­est Ser­vice has been try­ing to move this di­rec­tion for sev­eral years but has not yet been suc­cess­ful due to the nov­elty and tech­ni­cal com­plex­ity in­volved,” An­drew Lar­son, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mon­tana, noted in an email. “If this pro­ject moves for­ward to im­ple­men­ta­tion, it will be­come a case study in how to ap­proach truly large-scale land­scape plan­ning and man­age­ment.”

U.S. For­est Ser­vice, via The As­so­ci­ated Press

Dead lodge­pole pines are shown in an aerial view of the Medicine Bow-Routt Na­tional Forests in the south­ern Snowy Range near the Colorado-Wy­oming state line.

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