Planning a Future Forest

Planning a Future Forest

Red trees, the telltale sign of beetle kill, rise amid the snow in Eagle County, Colorado. David Frey photo.


Many trees on the White River National Forest are dying. Bark beetles are killing lodgepole pines. Aspens are experiencing what biologists call sudden aspen decline. So the Forest Service is trying to actively manage for the future forest. It’s part of a national priority called “forest resiliency.” But some critics wonder if humans should be trying to play Mother Nature. David Frey reports.

(Listen to the story here.)

[Sound of helicopters]

Could this be the sound of a new forest coming to life?

In the hills behind Aspen’s exclusive Starwood neighborhood, crews are cutting down dead trees and hauling them away by helicopter. The trees were killed by bark beetles – part of an epidemic that has destroyed lodgepole pine forests across millions of acres in the West. Getting rid of these trees will help protect these multimillion-dollar mansions from wildfire. It’s also meant to slow the spread of the deadly beetle. And, it’s part of a plan to pave the way for a future forest.

[Fade helicopter sound]

“We can wait for Mother Nature to do it and in meantime suffer the consequences. That’s not a choice that most people want to make. They want to do something in their lifetime and make a difference.” [13 sec]

Bill Kight is a community liaison for the White River National Forest. He’s working with a group of forest users called the Future Forest Roundtable to plan similar projects throughout the forest to improve habitat, decrease fire danger and help the forest re-grow.

The work on the White River National Forest is part of a national priority to improve what the agency calls “Forest Resiliency” – the ability of a forest to recover from disturbances like fire, drought and beetle outbreaks.

“What you’re seeing there on the White River is the type of work that’s occurring on a lot of different national forests across the country.”

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell says those disturbances are becoming more catastrophic, due in part to global warming. Fire seasons in some parts of the country are two months longer than they were just a decade ago, Tidwell says. Droughts are more severe. And beetle outbreaks are worse, partly because warmer winters don’t kill the beetles like they used to.

“Those are the things that have added to the overall concern about forest resiliency today.”

As in many forests across the West, much of the White River National Forest is dying. Beetles are killing off pine and spruce trees. Aspen trees are dying due to a mysterious phenomenon called sudden aspen decline. Animals like deer and elk are watching their habitat disappear.

So Forest Service officials are trying to actively shape the future forest. They’re working with diverse groups, from environmentalists to mountain bikers, from local governments to ski areas, to create a healthier forest than the one there now.

[Sound of helicopters]

The portion near Starwood, where well-heeled residents from John Denver to Saudi Prince Bandar have owned homes, is just the beginning of a ten-year project with a seven-million-dollar price tag on more than 62 thousand acres. In parts of the forest, like here, that project means cutting dead pines. In others, it will mean thinning out old aspens to make room for young ones. In still others, it will mean encouraging tender young oak brush — which deer and elk like to eat — by clearing out older oak. In many cases, Forest Service officials plan to use fire to do the work for them.

[Fade helicopter sound] [Sound of Smokey Bear PSA: “Fire! Fire! Run for your lives!”]

Fire, forest officials say, was once an important part of the ecosystem. But that was before decades of wildfire suppression, symbolized by Forest Service icon Smokey Bear in advertising campaigns like these.

[Sound of Smokey Bear PSA: “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.”]

That policy may have put out wildfires, but Forest Service officials say it also led to today’s explosive conditions. So the Forest Service wants to use fire again, to bring the forest back to life.

“We want people to understand that not all fires are bad and that fire is a necessary element if we’re going to restore the ecological element of forest to what it used to    be – a healthy forest.”

Critics question whether humans really can – or should — plan a future forest. Sloan Shoemaker is executive director of the environmental group Wilderness Workshop. He’s a member of the Future Forest Roundtable, but he’s also a skeptic. He says that old fire policy should teach us a lesson – that when humans try to plan a forest, it can lead to unintended consequences.

“Gardening the forest in order to have the viewscape that we want seems misguided and potentially a very faulty approach to our relationship with the forest.”

Shoemaker says disturbances like the beetle outbreak are part of a natural cycle. Left on its own, he says, the forest is already regenerating by itself.

“I guess I question the very need for us to be designing and controlling and engineering a future forest.”

Forest Service officials hope that by inviting a wide array of public opinion, they can reduce conflicts, and spread beyond forest boundaries to work on private land. In some cases, like at Starwood, they also hope for funds from landowners to help pay for the work.

“The more people understand the benefits of having a healthy forest, a resilient forest, they’ll also understand there are some benefits to invest to help in that. I think we’re just fortunate to have the communities we have in Colorado to recognize that. It’s going to take all of us working together.”

[SMOKEY BEAR SONG: “You can take a tip from Smokey that there’s nothing like a tree. Cause they’re good for kids to climb in and they’re beautiful to see.” [Music fade under outro]