Feds hobbled by New Mexico disaster lag in climate resilience work
By Bruce Finley
Deep in the dark woods southwest of Fairplay, federal logging crews tasked with tree thinning to protect homeowners against megafires and restore forest health must watch out: make sure not to cut down bristlecone pines that live for several thousand years.
U.S. Forest Service rules protecting bristlecones, among the oldest known living organisms on the planet, allow no exception for trees with a chest-high diameter exceeding 9 inches. And Jim Pitts, acting supervisor of this Pike-San Isabel National Forest, has directed crews to spare smaller ones, too, if possible.
Bristlecone pines with their crooks and gnarled branches from enduring extreme wind and snow through millennia “are truly character trees,” Pitts said, overseeing the removal of other species from 332 acres within a 590-acre forested area adjacent to mountain homes.
Factor in the Grosbeak birds that nest on branches near tree trunks in this forest, compelling crews to complete all tree- cutting before June despite possible heavy late snow.
Federal loggers also must navigate opposition from homeowners and advocacy groups that warn overzealous thinning will sterilize stressed land.
And a prescribed fire disaster in New Mexico last year temporarily took away an essential tool for mimicking nature’s role.
The result is a lag in attaining the federal government’s 200,000-acre target for wildfire mitigation and forest restoration in Colorado and surrounding states. Federal supervisors estimated in mid- January they’re 5% to 10% behind in work to restore patchy, diverse forests considered more resilient in an era of supercharged wildfires.
They’re scrambling to catch up before summer when wildfires traditionally break out, deputy regional forester Jacque Buchanan told The Denver Post from the agency’s headquarters west of Denver.
“It is urgent. This is our primary focus right now,” Buchanan said. “We recognize the potential to lose property and life. We need to be paying attention to this at a level beyond anything we’ve ever done before.”
Congress last year approved more than $5 billion to protect populated areas nationwide from worsening wildfires as the climate warms.
Forest Service officials blamed delays on multiple factors, including difficulty lining up staff sufficiently skilled to make delicate decisions about what to cut and not cut in the woods.
The temporary halt through October 2022 on fighting fire with fire (after a prescribed fire last May in New Mexico burned out of control across more than 340,000 acres) prompted agency reviews of how climate warming creates increasingly variable conditions favoring wind-whipped megafires. Every crew had to get training.
“We did that forest by forest, district by district. Anybody who had anything to do with prescribed fire had to go through those training sessions. And it took some time,” Buchanan said.
“We need the prescribed fire tool. We need to burn. We need to be able to move forward.”
Yet every forest holds wonders that must be preserved, she said. “We have a responsibility to do everything humanly possible.”
The bristlecone pines interspersed among other species on high ridges and foothills on the western side of South Park around Fairplay stand out as especially valuable.
Bristlecone pines grow in isolated groves, thriving under harsh high-elevation conditions in California, Nevada and Colorado — surviving for up to 4,789 years. They grow very slowly, surviving subzero temperatures, dry soils, 120 miles-per-hour wind, and short growing seasons. Their wood is dense, resinous, resisting insects and fungi.
At the Windy Ridge Bristlecone Pine Scenic Area nearby above Alma, researchers have identified trees more than 1,000 years old.
But in this forest southwest of Fairplay, the 13,023-acre Weston Pass fire sparked by lightning in June 2018 nearly devastated mountain subdivision homes.
Some homeowners in the high-end Warms Springs Ranch area, watching loggers with heavy machinery mow through forests over the past two months, chafed at the scope of “wildfire mitigation” tree removal on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service adjacent to their property.
“We continue to be concerned that the 166 acres of forest behind our home is being clear-cut, not thinned or hand trimmed,” resident George Fischer wrote on Jan. 5 to a forest supervisor.
Public documents proposing this Warm Springs Project in 2021 “described the mitigation treatments as thinning and mastication, with only limited use of clear-cut logging methods on no more than 30-acre patches,” Fischer wrote.
He said he’s concerned that commercial interests around logging may be overriding ecological and public safety imperatives. He and his spouse observed at least one bristlecone that loggers cut down.
A photo showed it was relatively small.
Forest Service employees monitoring logging operations “found no bristlecone pines” bigger than 9-inch diameter were cut, Pitts said. “To the best of our knowledge from the thinning activities we aren’t aware of any of the larger bristlecones being cut.”
He pointed to one old bristlecone in the area, painted with an orange stripe around the trunk, signaling to loggers it must be left standing. There were “very few” smaller bristlecones cut down, he said.
Where the predominant lodgepole pines in the forest have grown exceptionally dense, any new growth of bristlecone, limber and other species will be stunted by shade, Pitts said. And unless natural, patchy conditions — allowing more light in the forest — can be restored through mechanical thinning, smaller trees will struggle and diversity will diminish.
“It really gets down to forestry. It is complex,” he said.
“We are manipulating vegetation the same way nature would do. But we use chainsaws instead of fire or beetles. We are building resilience so that the bristlecones that are here will have a chance to become mature trees. If a bristlecone is overshadowed by lodgepole pines, it will never make it to be 1,000 years old.”