Photos and text by Will Sardinsky

For part one of this two-part series, click here

The Forest Service has stated that the logging on William’s Peak, along Four Mile Road, is to create a disturbance, “and cutting areas with mature aspen stimulates their root system to vigorously regenerate.” However, users of the William’s Peak area along Four Mile road have wondered if this will actually be beneficial, especially given the current scar it has left on the landscape.

Explaining how regeneration is possible, Jason Sibold, professor of Geography at Colorado State University, says aspens have adapted to high-severity fire disturbance and logging mimics this.

However, it’s not quite that simple. Sibold explains that one good predictor of how an aspen grove might respond to a high disturbance event is whether the stand is considered seral or self-replacing.

Seral stands are relatively homogenous in age and they rely on fire to reset the landscape, otherwise shade-tolerant conifers, such as spruce and fir, will replace them over the course of about 100 years.

Whereas seral stands rely on a reset from a high-disturbance event, the opposite is true for self-replacing stands. In some cases, it’s been 300 years since they’ve burned, and you’ll see multiple generations of aspen. “By going in and treating a self-replacing stand, the only thing you’re doing is opening the door for other species to come in,” says Sibold.

While scientists used to think most stands were seral, Sibold estimates that roughly 50% of aspen stands in Colorado are self-replacing. To maintain aspen throughout Colorado, he recommends leaving those self-replacing stands alone. “The problem is we don’t know which of the stands are self-replacing and which are seral without doing some studies and coring some trees.”

Regardless, the U.S. Forest Service has a multi-use mandate that, among other things, requires them to make resources, including timber, available for extraction from National Forest lands.

Although Sibold is unfamiliar with the Williams Peak project, he surmises that the Forest Service is trying to meet this mandate while doing the least harm possible. “If I say hey, you’ve got to cut X number of board-feet from this landscape at this point in time, what are you going to do?”

Answering his own question, Sibold continues, “You have some of the last healthy spruce stands in that part of the state. Why in the world, if somewhere around 40% of our spruce forests have been killed by spruce beetle since the year 2000, would you muck with a green spruce forest? … My gut feeling is the Forest Service is trying to say, ‘Where do we meet our timber targets with the least impact possible?’ They’re not dummies, and they’re not evil people.”

Despite the Forest Service’s good intentions, many users of this area are still unhappy. Morgan Williams, local backcountry recreationist, says, “as a wood consumer, I think we need to harvest wood. But, can’t there be a responsible way that doesn’t involve clear cutting? We have plenty of beetle kill trees that are already dead in Colorado.” Williams also notes, “while harvesting old, diseased trees makes sense, anyone could see this winter that they also cut super healthy Douglas firs and conifers as well.”

For Will Roush, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, this whole situation points toward the importance of the public’s interaction with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. “This project, when it was going through development and analysis with the Forest Service, there weren’t a lot of comments submitted by the public. That’s probably both on the public and the agency, and it’s just really important for people to get involved in land management decisions. During the NEPA process is the time that they can be heard.”

Roush also points out, “Our community here is quite diverse, and there’s a high percentage of people who may not speak English or be familiar with these projects. There’s a growing need for the agencies to be thinking about how to involve the public in the development of projects.”

While this 90-acre treatment has a relatively small impact, Sibold observes that the future of our forests isn’t looking bright. Using the analogy of an “untasty layer cake,” he says, “Instead of chocolate, then fudge, then more chocolate and fudge, we’ve got drought, insects, more drought, fire, insects, invasive species. It’s all of this smattering and layering and layering of insults to ecosystems.”

But, the Forest Service has to stick to their multi-use mandates. So, Sibold says, the important questions to ask are, “Do we have evidence that would lead us to believe that this is going to respond and regrow robustly? If it is, breaking up the aspen landscape and getting some more age cohort diversity, so some younger patches that are more robust to drought, is not a bad idea at all.”

He continues, “We’ve had about 8-9% of our subalpine forests burn since the year 2000, and everyone thinks our whole state has burned up. In the next two decades, we’re anticipating another 35% of the subalpine landscape burning. In other words, a lot more than what we’ve just had.”

Looking toward the future of Colorado’s forests, some scientists predict that we will lose all of the aspens due to climate change, potentially as early as 2035. Sibold, however, believes that aspen will last much longer. “Just to be clear, I’m probably in the vast minority, but a lot of those people who are betting against aspen, they’re in a lab at Harvard or something and they’re running climate models and if we brought them to the Roaring Fork Valley, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you which one is aspen.”