Letter to the Editor: Some of our forests in Summit County should not be restored by thinning

Howard Brown

When I read Friday’s “Get Wild” column titled “Our forests, our water” by Libby Pansing, I was all set to find that her employer, American Forests, was a timber industry trade organization.

She backtracks to say some good things about trees and forests but starts out by saying, first, that their density should be “managed” to maximize water runoff and, second, that “forest thinning is integral to restoring forest structure and function.” 

Let’s start with “restoring” forests by “thinning” them. Perhaps Pansing’s academic training focused on ecosystem’s very different from those of Summit County, but around here, “forest thinning” and “forest diversity” are euphemisms used by the Forest Disservice for justifying denuding huge swaths of our wonderful forests, if they intersperse the destruction with patches of “unmanaged” forest.

High-elevation Summit County has two main types of forest: stable, shade-tolerant, spruce-fir climax forests and sun-loving, opportunistic lodgepole pine forests that developed after historically very rare fires and far too extensive clear-cutting.

Lodgepole forests are indeed very dense because that is the way that they grow. But the good guys (me and knowledgeable fellow forest lovers) and the bad guys (Disservice) agree that there is no point in thinning lodgepoles because it just exposes the remaining shallow-rooted trees (dead and especially live) to the wind and they’ll all blow over.

Lodgepoles do eventually naturally thin themselves by succumbing to disease from periodic beetle infestations. The resulting mix of live and still-standing dead trees avoids blowdown and creates the ideal setting for spruce and fir seedlings and the natural succession back to climax spruce-fir forest. But the bad guys see that as an opportunity to play on false fire-hazard fears (dead trees have no foliage to burn) and mow down the whole forest — setting the succession process back 100 years or more and regenerating dense, sterile lodgepole forests. Spruce-fir forests are naturally widely spaced, supporting diverse other flora and fauna; disease-, insect- and fire-resistant; and marvelous places for recreation and simple nature appreciation. 

As for maximizing runoff, we cannot allow our wonderful forests to be destroyed for a little more water for Denver or alfalfa farmers in the Arizona desert. And Denver Water is shooting itself in the foot by funding clear cutting of beetle-impacted forest as those trees that are dead no longer drink water but still shade snow to prevent sublimation directly to the air and prevent too-rapid runoff.

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