An Earthly Idea: Lodging a lodgepole complaint
One of the first surprises that I had when I started looking into Summit County forests and the wisdom or lack thereof of clear-cutting was to learn that lodgepole pine are not the natural “climax” vegetation. Seeing spruce and fir up high and lodgepole down low, I had just assumed that the predominant trees were a function of elevation. Not liking the overgrown-Christmas-tree-lot look of young lodgepole stands that I now know as “doghair,” I had asked a Forest Service expert about the likely impact on future forest diversity of clear-cutting versus not. So when he said in passing that left uncut, the areas with beetle-killed lodgepole would eventually turn to spruce/fir, it was somewhat of a revelation.
It should have been obvious, had I been noticing the trees for the forest. Throughout the “lodgepole forest,” particularly wherever there are beetle-killed or other dead lodgepole, I now notice young fir growing up underneath. “Succession” is one of the core concepts of ecology. Following a “disturbance,” such as an avalanche or a fire, “pioneer” species start recolonizing first. Their growth, however, usually sets their own demise. By building soil, creating shade or otherwise changing conditions, they make the habitat more favorable for other species. The process continues until eventually a stable “climax” vegetation takes hold. Where conditions allow tree growth, this is typically a shade-tolerant tree or combination of tree species.
At Summit County’s high elevation, that climax vegetation is a mix of shade-tolerant subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce. Contrary to what our local forest district may say when trying to justify clear-cuts, it is never sun-loving lodgepole. How then can lodgepole seem to dominate our forests? In nature, lodgepole are dependent upon and regenerate readily after fire. Indeed some of their cones open only after fire. Because Summit County is just a little higher, colder and wetter, however (at least until global warming changes that), recurrent fire is not a major part of our ecology. The last major fires here were around 140 years ago and even those may have been intentionally set or otherwise caused by mining activity. We owe some of our lodgepole to those fires.
Man can also regenerate lodgepole, however, because clear-cutting mimics fire. We owe most of our current lodgepoles to major clear-cutting of Summit County in the 1930s to make money during the Depression. Eighty years later, these now-mature lodgepole forests are at a critical junction. The modest beetle kill that we had here is part of the natural process, accelerating the succession from monoculture lodgepole to lodgepole-fir mix to spruce-fir climax. Clear-cutting those forests again would restart the clock, committing the forest and us to another 60- to 140-year cycle to get back to where we our now. In the meantime, we and our children and grandchildren would live with ugly clear-cuts, doghair and dense, skinny lodgepole instead of the beautiful forests and trails that make Summit County the great place that it is. Tell your county commissioners and congressmen to stop the clear-cutting and let nature take its course.
To learn more about lodgepole, spruce-fir and other forest types and their succession processes, see “From Grassland to Glacier: the Natural History of Colorado and the Surrounding Region” by Mutel and Emerick or “The Naturalist’s Guide to the Southern Rockies” by Benedict. You can also start your education on Summit forests, as I did, by seeing the trees for the forest. Pines have needles in clusters; two for lodgepole; five for bristlecone. Spruce and fir needles sprout individually from the stem. Spruce needles are sharper and stiffer and will roll between your fingers. Fir needles are too flat to roll easily and much softer (“fir-friendly,” I heard someone say the other day).
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.
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