The U.S. Forest Service Pagosa Ranger District, as per its mission, “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations,” cannot sit idly by while the forest changes in colors from green to a ghostly grey.
The Douglas fir and spruce beetles are at epidemic levels in many spots of the San Juan National Forest. The tree stands have grown old together, from ponderosa pine to Engelmann spruce to quaking aspen. With homogeneity of stands in both type and age, increased number of stems per acre, the forest has become weak and has given way to the invasion of insects and succumbed to the onslaught of disease, the situation beginning to pose threats of high-intensity fires and to the safety of the communities, such as Pagosa Springs, nestled in its midst.
In the 2002 book “Flames in Our Forest: Disaster or Renewal,” authors Stephen F. Arno and Stephen Allison-Bunnell write, “Simply leaving today’s forests alone after a century of fire suppression and forestry focused on extraction of big trees is not caring for them; it is abandonment.”
So, the Forest Service is facing the task of mitigation. One the techniques to mitigate the impacts of the disease and beetles on the forest environment is removal of trees through vegetation management. This not only helps make the forest more resilient to beetle and disease attack, but also decreases the chance of a large-scale crown fire (a fire that advances with great speed by jumping from tree crown to tree crown).
For many years in the past, this technique was accomplished through timber sales put out to bid by the Forest Service. According to forester Steve Hartvigsen, there must be a need that drives Forest Service action, and for vegetation management, this is most often the mortality of some type of tree. After this is determined for an area, a mini-assessment is completed in which social and environmental factors are evaluated. Next, a National Environmental Policy Act is completed. After the NEPA process is completed, the timber sale is put out to bid.
However, the timber industry is presently in a substantial decline. The last sawmill in Archuleta County, Lob Lolly Logging and Lumber, closed its doors last year. The price for the tree on the stump has gone down, the cost of maintaining a mill, paying workers, insurance and other business maintenance costs has not gone down.
“We went from moving quite a bit of wood to nothing,” said Steve Wright, owner of Lob Lolly Logging and Lumber. “It (the timber industry) is pretty much dead,” Wright said.
In addition to the housing market decline, Wright said the international market contributes to the idle state of the industry.
“Mills in British Columbia are selling wood for $.25 per cubic meter as opposed to mills in the Northeast which sell wood for $20 per cubic meter. There is not a real great way to compete,” Wright adds.
The wood ships from British Columbia or Brazil at a cost cheaper than buying wood from the Forest Service as a standing tree, Wright says. The 2006 Softwood Lumber Agreement was agreed upon by both the US and Canada, which makes it illegal for governments to subsidize the industry. Although the agreement has been made, it has also not been followed by the Canadian government, most notably in the province of British Columbia. The agreement has been in international trade court off and on for several years.
Concerning the timber industry, Wright has some solemn words: “I don’t see a future. I don’t see a hope for it … There’s no reason to do it. No incentive.”
As for timber sales, with struggling sawmills, most timber sale contracts are not being fulfilled, leaving forests with thousands of dead, standing trees that increase the threat of large-scale fire and susceptibility to disease and insects. Out of the three major production sawmills left in Colorado, Intermountain Resources LLC has been the main bidder for timber sales in the Pagosa Ranger District.
“Going back all the way to the mid nineties, there are timber sales contracts that are untouched,” said Pagosa District Ranger Kevin Khung.
Since May 2010, Intermountain Resources has been operating under receivership of Pat Donovan with Cordes and Company. Intermountain presently has 51 timber sales contracts, only two of which the company is fulfilling. One of those contracts, Devil Creek, has already defaulted. The reason: the contracts are no longer economically viable.
In an announcement released by U.S. National Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region, mutual cancellation of timber sales contracts became a point of necessity due to the dependent relationship between the Forest Service and the purchasers of timber sales contracts.
“They could be forced to close their doors if they cannot obtain relief from economically unviable National Forest timber sales. It is essential to take action that may help purchasers survive,” stated the USFS announcement, continuing, “The loss of these mills and independent loggers — whether through a voluntary exit from the marketplace or bankruptcy, default or other non-voluntary action — will negatively impact the Region’s ability to battle its unprecedented mountain pine beetle outbreak, as well as other insect and disease infestations, with timber sale and stewardship contracts.”
However, some believe that, though the timber industry is in hard times, some sawmills could have probably managed their business better.
With land in need of management tied up in timber sales, and areas that were marked for timber sales left untouched, the Forest Service still must manage the forests. If there are no longer any timber mills chomping at the bit, the question becomes, What will the Forest Service do? Even if they were able to chop down the dead trees, there is no money to transport the logs to an operating sawmill in large quantities.
There is an alternative to timber mills and timber sale contracts: stewardship contracts and biomass energy.
“Congress authorized government agencies to put up stewardship contract, like ours, cost more for services than the timber (the goods) are worth. Our timber values have been in the tank for awhile, and until the housing market comes back, we expect them to remain very low,” Hartvigsen explained.
Presently, there are only two long-term stewardship contracts. The one in discussion for the Pagosa Ranger District is more locally based than others, with a maximum haul of 50 miles. Hartvigsen explained that it is focused on the lower to mid-elevation forests around the developed areas in Archuleta County, the eastern portion of La Plata County and the southern portion of Hinsdale County.
On the part of the Forest Service, it would guarantee 32,500 green tons of cut material per year.
“We estimate that it would cover approximately 1,300 to 2,00 acres per year,” Hartvigsen said, adding, “A fairly small area when you think in terms of the area we would like to influence annually,” which is 30,000 acres per year. The entire Pagosa Ranger District is 586,000 acres.
The contract’s key objectives are: reduce fuels and fire risk, restore forests to conditions that are resilient to change and sustainable over the long; and to improve forest health, in particular with respect to insects and disease. The follow-up after the contract service is accomplished (they must remove 95 percent of all cut materials), will be prescribed burning by the Forest Service.
And what do we do with all the trees after we cut ‘em down? You make them into chips, let them burn and harness that energy.
J.R. Ford has a business proposition to harvest the biomass and convert it to energy.
“With no timber industry left, the Forest Service is hard up to find a way to deal with the increased fuels of the forests,” Ford said. Ford would provide the Forest Service with what he calls “cost-effective restoration.”
“Sawmills are no longer cost effective,” Ford explained, but he stressed that the biomass has to be removed.
The project would address some of the primary concerns of the Forest Service: create fire breaks in the wildland urban interface.
In order for the company, Renewable Forest Energy LLC, to be a profitable business endeavor, the company must have a steady stream of biomass. This would come from the Forest Service. The biomass would need to be at 32,500 green tons per year for the next 10 years.
If the contract is awarded to Ford’s company, it will be one of the first in the country.
“People have made mistakes in the past, we need to move forward and make it right,” Ford said.
Currently, there are three people still in the “competitive range” to receive the stewardship contract, according to Hartvigsen. The Forest Service is set to award the contract sometime during the middle of this month.
While vegetation management is a key mitigation technique employed by the Forest Service to counter the effects of disease, epidemic levels of insects and prior mismanagement with regard to a ban on fire, as well as overgrazing and over-lumbering. Removing select trees will help improve the forest’s resiliency, but there is more that can be done concerning fuels management — to be discussed in the next article of the series.