The sound of a dying forest is deafening! You can literally hear the beetles gnawing the wood. You can hear the roar of the raging fires as they explode up the hillside. You can hear the crash of trees as they fall from high winds and snow loads.
Where is that forest? Right here! All areas that are called old growth and all areas that are too thick with trees, which is much of our forest in Colorado. Today, many of our forests carry approximately 10 times the number of trees that existed 200 years ago. We tend to think that what we see today is the way it always has been. Records and pictures refute that concept. The forest we are so proud of today has been developed because of how it has been used in the past. It was logged, mines were opened, it was grazed, firewood was harvested, roads to do this were constructed, water tanks and lakes were constructed.
Without this past use, we would not have the availability of water for man, wildlife, recreation, agriculture and industry, nor would we have the dense, beautiful forest of today. The aged and dying forest of early times has been replaced by a dense, growing forest that is now also becoming stagnated and beginning to die a premature death, since we have decided not to develop and manage it or use it any longer.
We have seen thousands of acres of timber burned this past summer, along with thousands of acres of beetle-killed timber, waiting for the next fire. They say there is not much that can or could have been done since there is no market for the wood. The word market is incorrect since the United States imports more softwood lumber than the entire rest of the world combined. It takes about 10,000 board feet of lumber for an average single-family house. Most of our forests contain more than that on a single acre, and we burned up thousands of acres of it this one summer.
We do currently lack the milling capacity to use what we are now wasting. Why? Simply put, it is due to self-serving and misguided efforts of pseudo-environmentalists imposing federal laws and regulations that have severely limited and even eliminated most beneficial uses of the forests and the industry that made use of the resources for our economy.
This has not been in the best interests of the forest resources and the state of Colorado. Of the thousands of acres of timber we lost this year, how much could we have used locally instead of importing it from Chile, Canada and Germany like we do?
Today, we see our lakes at an all-time low, as are the streams. We hope for a good snowpack and wet summer to come. Will that help? Some, but not to the level it should. The 10-times overdense forest is preventing much of the water from reaching the streams and lakes and ponds. In a dense pine, spruce and fir forest, approximately 45 percent of the rain and snow may never reach the ground as it is intercepted in the branches and directly evaporates. The moisture that does reach the ground is used by the trees in the growing season in the amount of 10+ gallons per tree per day, depending on actual availability of water in the soil and the species of tree. In dry years, that doesnt leave much for streams and lakes or anything else when you have an overly dense forest. Is there a correlation with our current dried-up springs, seeps, lakes and streams, with an overly dense forest?
The forage needed to sustain and improve the livestock and elk herds is greatly affected by the lack of moisture reaching the ground in the dense forest area.
Is there a solution? Certainly, but not quickly, but it must be started as soon as possible. First, we have to get off of the misconception that locking up any forest area from management and multiple uses is saving or preserving it. Just the opposite is true! Its future as a viable growing forest is being destroyed by these efforts!
Second, we must initiate development of the wood-products industry to thin out the dense areas and use the constantly dying trees for beneficial uses, thus reducing the imports, and produce employment and new wealth locally. There is the potential for biomass-fuel power generation, which would have many added benefits. There are numerous remanufactured wood products and byproducts that can be explored and developed.
We need to revitalize the livestock industrys use of the forest for cattle and sheep, which will help improve the forage and watershed protection, along with the wildlife.
As a minimum, these would begin the effort to reduce the losses from wildfires and diseases, improve watersheds, improve the local economy, improve opportunities for recreation, improve our wildlife habitat, and all, simply, as an output of revitalizing and conserving the forests for future generations.
Dexter Gill, a Lewis resident, is a retired state and tribal forester.