Commercial logging is making a comeback in the San Juan Mountains.
Stagnant over the past decade, Matt Janowiak, district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service’s Columbine district, said timber sales will increasingly be reintroduced on the landscape of the national forest in Southwest Colorado.
“Demand is increasing ... so there’s going to be more of it,” Janowiak said.
Commercial logging has lagged the past decade as demand for lumber waned, he said, driven in large part by the Great Recession around 2008 and its impacts on the housing industry.
A further hit to the industry locally occurred around 2011, when the region’s largest mill, Montrose Forest Products, declared bankruptcy, Janowiak said.
“We tried to sell timber, and we got no bids for several years,” he said.
The Forest Service in Southwest Colorado, however, has gradually been rebuilding its timber program since 2011 as demand ramps back up.
Most recently, a logging operation started north of Bayfield, on about 650 acres along Beaver Meadows Road. The sale will remove, over the next three years, about 52,000 spruce trees that died from beetle kill.
Local operator Andy McCoy, whose Bayfield-based company Cascade Timber Salvage won the bid for the “Trout Creek Salvage timber sale,” said he was tenacious in his attempt to win the contract.
McCoy, a fourth-generation La Plata County resident, said he started his logging outfit in the 1990s. It has survived over the years by cutting down trees on private land, and, when possible, on the national forest.
McCoy said he “would have been out of business” if not for the collaboration with local Forest Service staff.
“They did an outstanding job getting this sale out just in time,” he said.
The timber sale up Beaver Meadows Road is ideal for a number of factors, McCoy said, namely easy access to the land and quality of the wood, which just recently died from the invasive beetle.
McCoy said his phone rings almost every day from people interested in buying this wood, which ultimately will be sold to mills around the state for housing, among other needs.
“This is one of the best sales in the state, I bet,” he said.
The Forest Service, by mandate, is tasked with a variety of responsibilities on public lands, including creating hiking trails for recreational use, protecting the health of the forest and opening opportunities for industry like mining or timber sales.
Recently, the Trump administration called for more logging on the national forest as a cost-effective strategy that would reduce the risk of wildfire. Many argue, however, this strategy is being used as a political tool to justify more logging.
In the San Juan National Forest, at least, Janowiak said he doesn’t expect any large-scale, clear-cutting timber operations. Instead, timber cutting will be a more low-intensity project on the land.
“That’s pretty much how we’re going forward,” Janowiak said.
Environmentalists make a standLogging operations have a tumultuous history in the San Juan Mountains.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the environmental movement on a national scale pushed hard against massive, destructive logging. In the Pacific Northwest, especially, protesters went to extremes by chaining themselves to and living in trees.
The attitude also existed in Southwest Colorado, said Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance, when the Forest Service proposed a number of controversial timber sales in old growth forests in roadless areas.
In one instance around 1990, a group of students from Fort Lewis College tried to block a timber sale in an area known as Sand Bench, east of Durango near the Piedra River, by chaining themselves to bulldozers.
“By that time, it was a last-ditch effort,” Pearson said. “The contract had already been issued, and it was eventually logged.”
Public sentiment, however, forced the Forest Service to establish the “Roadless Rule” in 2001. The rule prevents road construction and timber harvesting on nearly 58.5 million acres of national forest land.
Since then, Pearson couldn’t recall a controversial logging project in the San Juan Mountains.
“Once that rule came into effect, it took all these very controversial logging in roadless area sales off the table,” he said.
Logging can be done rightThe Forest Service’s Janowiak said the Forest Service has come a long way in logging practices.
“We have taken a very different approach to logging, looking for ecosystem restoration work rather than making the forest as commercially available as we can,” Janowiak said.
Aaron Kimple, program director of forest health for Mountain Studies Institute, said logging can be done right, but it takes proper planning.
“As industry moves back in, we need to make sure we’re honest about what we’re trying to do on the landscape, where and why,” Kimple said.
Three species of trees are generally harvested around Southwest Colorado: spruce, ponderosa and aspen. Each carries its own environmental concerns.
Spruce harvests, from an ecological standpoint, are the hardest to justify, Kimple said. Logging removes the larger trees, which provide the shade and shelter younger trees rely on. That can hamper regeneration of the forest.
Logging roads and equipment driving over saplings can further exacerbate this issue.
“There seems to be a little more acceptance for logging, but we need to think about the right tools and the right places,” Kimple said.
Does logging really reduce wildfire risk?Because of recent wildfires around the West, the Trump administration and Congress have directed the Forest Service to solicit more logging on public lands to reduce the risk of wildfire.
The actual benefits of logging to help reduce wildfire risk, however, increasingly have been called into question.
George Wuerthner, an ecologist and author who has written extensively about fire ecology, said all large wildfires burn in extreme fire conditions (drought, high temperatures, low humidity, high winds), regardless of logging or thinning of the forest.
Logging, in fact, can make fire spread quicker by opening up the forest floor, which allows fuels to dry out quicker and removes the protection from wind that large tree stands provide, Wuerthner said.
“The majority of all fires are very small, burning a few acres or less,” he said. “It is the large ones we’re concerned about where a lot of evidence suggests thinning, logging and particularly sales don’t have much influence on the outcome.”
MSI’s Kimple added that logging removes larger trees while leaving shrubs, grasses and smaller trees that are more fire prone in the forest.
“One of our big issues on the landscape is that we have a large, dense undergrowth that (logging operators) are not interested in,” Kimple said. “What are we going to do with the smaller stuff, the slash, left behind?”
Projects planned for areaSeveral proposed logging sales are in progress around the San Juan Mountains. These areas have been identified in the San Juan National Forest’s long-range plan as suitable for sales.
In the next few years, logging may start on Middle Mountain near Vallecito, some areas around Wolf Creek northeast of Pagosa Springs and about 62,000 acres of ponderosa pine near Dolores – the biggest project.
Janowiak said the Forest Service always monitors an area after logging has passed through.
“If the forest isn’t regenerating as expected, we will go in there and do some reforestation,” Janowiak said.
The sale on Beaver Meadows Road is considered one of the lesser impactful logging operations in the area. No objections were submitted during a public comment period. The area is adjacent to a road, and crews are using old road beds to get into the harder-to-reach places of the forest.
It also is employing local workers out of Bayfield. McCoy and his crew have set up campers to stay at an elevation of about 10,500 feet while they work eight- to 10-hour days.
McCoy said the work will continue even as it begins to snow, and it will last until they are forced to leave when the area becomes inaccessible.
“It’s actually cleaner to work in the snow, and it’s a nice time to work,” McCoy said. “It’s great that this wood is going to use and not rotting out here in the woods.”