When talking about why clear-cutting is the exact wrong thing to do in Summit County — as I often do — the conversation frequently turns to “dog hair.” I’ve been asked several times “What is this dog hair you talk about?” No, I’m not bemoaning the pet fur that covers my house. Nor am I alluding to “hair of the dog,” a draught of liquor meant to cure a hangover.
When talking about forests, dog hair refers to very dense thickets of small trees, most frequently with regard to lodgepole or ponderosa pines. The only dictionary-style definition that I found on the Web was “a thick growth of small, suppressed trees.” Many citations referred to dog hair as being forest that is “grossly overstocked.”
A 2008 Colorado State Forest Service report on high elevation forests has this to say:
“Young lodgepole pine forests created from the chaos of a fire in an old lodgepole forest are examples of nature’s excess. Foresters refer to them as “dog-hair stands,” an apt description of pine carpets sown with 100,000 or more seedlings per acre. Each stem has essentially the same birthday — the day of the fire. … Depending on the degree of thinning, a very dense stand can stagnate after as few as 40 years. ...To influence ultimate stand productivity or longevity, tree thinning should occur in sapling stands. After that, by virtue of lodgepole’s tendency for shallow root systems, thinning without subsequent wind damage is difficult.”
Some lodgepole cones only release their seeds when exposed to the high heat of a fire. Others do not require fire, however. So lodgepole also regenerate after clear-cutting, creating the same sort of dog hair. Indeed, that is the express purpose of the infamous Ophir Clear-Cutting Plan, to regenerate lodgepole forest. (You may wonder why we should so much want single-age, single-species stands of these insect-prone, crown-fire-prone, wind-blow-prone trees instead of allowing the forest to evolve naturally. So do I.) Check out the dog-hair patches that we have now from cuts 30 years ago; I doubt that you’ll find them to be your favorite pieces of the forest. Nor do I expect these dense thickets to be good fire breaks or easy to work in for fire fighters.
The U.S. Forest Service will not, however, follow the state forest service’s suggestion of thinning; in fact, they cannot. I had a hard time imagining dog hair stands being particularly good for anything. It turns out, however, that snowshoe hares like them. And lynx feed on snowshoe hares. Therefore, in accordance with the Southern Rockies Lynx Amendment, the Forest Service will not thin dog-hair stands. (If you were hoping that clear-cuts would somehow stay open meadow, there is a rule against that too. It allows timber harvest only with assurance of restocking within five years.)
Thus, wherever the Forest Service clear-cuts partially dead or not-so-dead mature forest, we will get dog-hair thickets and have them for a very, very long time. Because young lodgepole grow so densely, they also grow ever so slowly. It will be 60-100 years before we have mature trees again and even then, they may still be skinny and tightly spaced. Meanwhile, stands that are left uncut will remain nicely spaced, natural forest. They will, however, gradually become more diverse as young fir, as well as lodgepole, grow up in the shade and replace the beetle-killed old lodgepole.
The “wildland urban interface” is exempt from the Lynx Amendment thinning proscription. So, insist that clear-cut forest near you be thinned. Better yet, ask that the land be replanted with aspen (better-spaced; faster-growing; more fire-resistant) before lodgepole dog hair starts to come in.
Howard Brown lives near Silverthorne. While he has extensive environmental policy analysis experience at the federal, state and local levels, he attributes his expertise to observing and asking questions while enjoying Summit County’s beauty.