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Dying trees and a changing forest

In a town surrounded by mountains, in the heart of San Juan National Forests, a town that trumpets mountain views and opportunity for adventurous outdoor activities, a change is happening.

Around Pagosa Country, from locals and tourists alike, confused questions can be heard: Why are there so many dead trees? Why are some trails closed? Is the campground safe anymore?

And then there is the one which makes evident humanity’s inert resistant to change: Why isn’t the Forest Service doing anything about this? Why can’t they keep the forest healthy, like the one I grew up with?

The simple answer to the latter question is, the Forest Service is doing something, and it neither can nor will keep the San Juan National Forest the same as it has been the past century.

The explanation for this answer, though, is multilayered and complex, involving economic drivers, shifting public interests, advances in research unveiling past management mistakes, budgetary restraints, a changing climate, etc.

The Pagosa Ranger District totals 586,000 acres, including the Weminuche Wilderness. In this vast portion of the San Juan National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service, by the words of its motto, is commissioned to care for the land and serve the people, yet how is this accomplished?

With a forest and a climate that is changing, in a world that is becoming ever more technological, with a public whose demands are torn between the desire to keep an untouched wilderness and a forest that will allow them the opportunity to race their new ATVs, how to care for the land and serve the people become ever more complex. The Forest Service does not have the luxury of only tending to one task and not the other. The Pagosa Ranger District cannot opt for caring for the forest and ignoring the people. It is facing this daunting task, admitting to the mistakes it has made in the past and is keeping an open ear to listen to ideas, advice and criticism that any of the public might have.

The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands, to meet the needs of present and future generations.

“We are a multiple use agency, different than most public land management agencies,” Pagosa District Ranger Kevin Khung explained. Multiple use becomes evident as Khung rattles off the list of positions in the Pagosa Ranger District: cultural resource (archeology), national historic preservation, forester, vegetation management, recreation, ranger, wildlife, fuels forester, fire management, fire staff, NEPA coordinator, ecologist, lands position and hydrologist.

All these departments come together to “sustain the health of the forest,” as best as they know how. A healthy forest now, presents a different picture than it did 50 years ago.

To bring resiliency back to the forest, it is not enough to leave it alone. The human impact has greatly made itself known.

The changes, specifically the dead trees, cannot all be attributed to one source.

Pagosa Ranger District forester Steve Hartvigsen says that it was not simply the 100 years of fire suppression legislation put in place by government, and implemented by the Forest Service. It was the overall influence of settling America — building, logging, grazing and, yes, fire suppression.

“Between heavy grazing, first, then some intensive harvesting, followed by fire suppression and further harvesting, we have really tipped the balance in favor of: heavy fuels, dense forests, changes in composition and structure and leaving much in the way of forests at high risk for unnatural wildfire and bark beetle epidemics, particularly in light of climate change which is exacerbating these issues,” Hartivgsen says.

Decades of fire suppression has greatly changed the makeup and condition of the forest.

According to experts, in pre-settlement ponderosa pine forests, there were maybe 40 stems per acre compared to a recent average of well over 100 trees per acre. The size and condition of these trees is greatly impacted by the high number of trees. Most of the trees are smaller in diameter than pre-settlement trees and due to increase in competition for resources, each tree is more susceptible to attacks by insects and disease, which Pagosa Country has seen up close and personal this last year with epidemic levels of spruce and Douglas fir beetle infestation. This epidemic is leaving such a mark with dead and falling beetle kill trees that some outfitters are entertaining ideas of using the devastation to attract tourists.

“The earth is ever changing. Today we are privileged enough to witness a great event that few if any human has ever witnessed before,” says local outfitter Willie Swanda. As an outfitter, Swanda ventures further into the backcountry on a much more regular basis than most. Each year, one day is designated for Swanda’s crew to work in conjunction with a small group from the Forest Service to cut trees and clear paths. This year, instead of the one day, it took a total of three days to clear access routes to the backcountry. Swanda calls this the changing of the greatest landscape picture of all times. He also trains his guides to answer questions clients have concerning the situation. Guides must answer in a positive light, always emphasizing that they are privileged to be witnessing this.

“Take pictures, record what you see and pass it on to your children and children’s children, for this is truly a monumental event which is occurring,” is what Swanda says he tells his clients.

Dick Ray, a renowned local outfitter and former member of the Wildlife Commission, says that the large amount of dead and dying trees is something that he believes no one alive has ever seen and is not likely to see again in their lifetime.

“This will significantly alter the landscape,” Ray said. Hikers and hunters alike will be presented with a different type of landscape and, depending on how and when the tree falls, the traditional wildlife of the area may change as well.

Though some can try to make the best of it by viewing this changing forest as a once-in-a-lifetime sight, the impacts go beyond tourism and recreation activities.

Forest Service wildlife biologist Anthony Garcia said that, as of now, nothing conclusively can be stated regarding how species will respond to the dead and falling trees. However, he added that the large numbers of dead spruce and Douglas fir trees will benefit some animal species while negatively impacting others. Those that may benefit include woodpeckers. Those that may be negatively impacted would be animals that depend on deep winter snowpack such as Canada lynx. The reason is that, with so many stands of gray trees, the lack of canopy coverage in the forest will allow the snow to melt at a much faster rate. This means that, along with wildlife and a variety of recreation activities that will be affected, watershed will also be modified.

Evan Pugh, Ph.D. candidate in geological sciences, University of Colorado Boulder, has been studying the impacts of trees dead longer than five years on snow accumulation. Pugh explained that when the needles are gone, more snow will accumulate in the subcanopy. This results from less canopy snow interception, reducing sublimation loss. Basically, more sunlight will make it through the canopy, making snowmelt more rapid.

“Qualitatively, streamflow will increase because, with dead trees not sucking up water and more snow accumulating, there is excess water in the soil following snowmelt,” Pugh said.

What effects this potential increased streamflow will have is still uncertain.

However, it is not only insects that are killing the trees in the San Juan National Forest. In Williams Creek campground, many of the trees have succumbed to amillaria, a fungus which attacks and kills the roots of a tree, thus killing the entire tree. What is left scattered throughout the campground are standing snags, trees with nothing substantial keeping them standing, no root system and no life. The trees will fall, and the U.S. Forest Service has certain liability when it comes to the visitors to their campgrounds, designated sites approved partially for amenities, like water and outhouses and roads, and partially because of safety.

Khung is dealing with the decision of whether or not to close the popular campground next year. While he has time to make the decision, there are limited funds to better the campground and in lieu of the trees being extracted, the campground will have to be closed.

The extraction of the dead and diseased trees, though, is something that costs money; money that the Forest Service does not have in abundance. There is another problem with tree extraction: who is left to take the trees? This topic will be discussed in the next article in this series.

lindsey@pagosasun.com

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