Since February 14, 2022, the popular backcountry recreation area Williams Peak, located along Four Mile Road, has undergone a transformation. A 90-acre “treatment area,” as it’s referred to by the Forest Service, sees a forest once so dense it required bush whacking to navigate, turning into a field of stumps.
According to a road closure notice from the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, “aspen stands need periodic disturbance,” “cutting areas with mature aspen stimulates their root system” and “this work will help ensure the long-term health of aspen forests … by creating size and age diversity, as well as improve wildlife habitat.”
The same press release from the Forest Service elucidates that the cut trees are being taken to the Eagle Valley Clean Energy Biomass facility in Gypsum, where the wood is combusted to create electricity.
Like most of the aspen groves in Colorado, the trees in this area were mostly regenerated following wildfires from 1851 to 1901. Jason Sibold, professor of Geography at Colorado State University explains, “It was the settlement era. We had dry conditions, wet conditions, dry conditions — in very quick switching events, just like we’ve had here for the last 10 years. The settlers burned the land like crazy, which increased access for them, for animals, all kinds of stuff.”
As a species that thrives on high-disturbance events, aspens took advantage of the favorable conditions. However, they generally live between 120 and 150 years before succumbing to old age; an age most of them were starting to hit in 2000.
These aspens “are basically elder trees,” says Sibold. “They’re already on their last leg. We had sudden aspen decline hit the state in the early 2000s, and we see all these patches of mortality. It’s around Aspen; it’s on Smuggler Mountain; it’s on Mount Sopris; it’s down around Glenwood; it’s the entire Roaring Fork Valley.”
At the same time, Sibold explains, “the year 2002 hits — our first bad drought year since 1879-1880.” Similar droughts then occurred in 2003, 2012-2013, 2017-2018 and in 2020, with 2020 being the hottest and driest weather year in the last 1,200 years.
“It’s not just a drought; droughts decrease precip. This is what’s called a global change-style drought,” Sibold continues. He characterizes a “global change-style drought” as a lack of precipitation accompanied by high temperatures. These conditions are particularly hard on plants because they need more water to deal with the heat, but there is less water available.
Between the environmental stresses on our forests and new views of a scarred landscape, local backcountry skier Morgan Williams can’t see the benefit. “I think the clearcutting that is going on up there is inappropriate. … With all that we know about mother trees, interactions in the understory and ecological health of forests, to cut down virtually all trees doesn’t seem like an appropriate use of our federal lands — essentially giving away our collective resources in such an ecologically devastating way.”
Chiming in on the clear cutting, Will Roush, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, clarifies, “In general, when the Forest Service does these types of projects, the norm is for them to essentially clear cut aspen. … While I think that there’s some lack of clarity in the science in terms of how broadly that should be applied, and whether prescribed fire or just natural succession is maybe a better tool for the result they’re trying to get, you kind of have to clear cut it.”
Still, Roush is aware that others are as disturbed as Williams by the sight. “We’ve been hearing from some of our members about the logging happening up Four Mile,” he said. “We have a sense the community definitely has felt impacted.”
The work is part of the County Line Project, proposed in 2018 and approved in 2019. This project authorizes the cutting of approximately 1,597 more acres of National Forest and prescribed burning of approximately 13,661 acres of National Forest in the Four Mile area.
While not familiar with the details of The County Line Project, Sibold weighed in on the impacts that logging can have on the regeneration of aspen forests. In trying to simulate a fire-like disturbance through mechanical cutting, Sibold cautions, “Without fire, you can’t simulate all of the effects of fire. You have biogeochemical changes, you have seeds that are released, you have all kinds of things that happen with fire that don’t happen with mechanical.”
Sibold adds that, throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, prescribed cutting worked really well. However, “now you’re treating a stand that has already had a lot of decline, maybe some damage to the rootbase. You might not get that [same regrowth] response.”