Staff at the Colorado State Forest headquarters in Jackson County thought they had been spared the worst of the state’s unprecedented 2020 fire season in August, when the Cameron Peak Fire, which started in a wilderness area about 10 miles north, was driven by prevailing winds to the east.
Over the next two months, the Cameron Peak blaze made a series of fearsome runs towards Fort Collins, destroying more than 220 homes and becoming, at 208,913 acres, the largest wildfire in Colorado history. But the old log buildings of the State Forest headquarters — many of them built in the New Deal era by the Civilian Conservation Corps and listed on the National Register of Historic Places — had been kept out of harm’s way. October came, and by any reasonable standard, Colorado’s traditional fire season was over.
Then the East Troublesome Fire roared to life to the southwest, suddenly putting the complex, and its surrounding 71,000 acres of state-owned forestland, under threat from the opposite direction.
“We were pulling hard drives out of computers, loading up historic documents and artifacts,” said John Twitchell, a supervisory forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, which manages Colorado State Forest. In the chaotic hours of the fire’s blitz through Grand Lake and into Rocky Mountain National Park, CSFS staff heard unconfirmed reports that the blaze had leapt into Jackson County and was running down the Jack Creek watershed, just a few miles to the south.
It turned out to be a false alarm, and the historic CSFS complex was spared again. But in the space of just a few months, the Colorado State Forest, established through a land swap with the federal government in 1938, had been threatened by two fires larger than any the state had ever seen before. In all, roughly 600,000 acres of northern Colorado forests were scorched in the state’s worst fire season on record.
It was a blowup that many state foresters had long predicted — the product, in large part, of overlapping crises of drought, rising temperatures and a devastating mountain pine beetle epidemic that swept across the region beginning in the late 1990s.
In the middle of it all, confronting those challenges while trying to strike a delicate balance between environmentalists, recreationists, industrialists, developers and more, is the CSFS, which works with private landowners and other government agencies to provide stewardship for Colorado’s 24 million acres of forestland.
That work has taken on a new urgency in the wake of this year’s megafires. While fire can be a natural, healthy part of many forest ecosystems, few would dispute that blazes of the scale, severity and frequency that Colorado experienced in 2020 — likely its worst fire season in a thousand years — are disasters that must be prevented. They claimed at least two lives, destroyed hundreds of structures, wreaked havoc on water supplies, shut down a major interstate for weeks and choked Front Range cities with hazardous air pollution.
As a result, “forest management” has moved out of ecology textbooks and into political discourse, even becoming a favorite subject for President Donald Trump, who has used the concept primarily as a cudgel against Democratic officials in California and to deny the scientific consensus that climate change is fueling more dangerous fires. “Raking and cleaning and doing things,” Trump suggested while touring the aftermath of the deadly Paradise Fire in 2018, would help prevent similar megafires in the future.
The foresters of the CSFS can see the effects of climate change — including the spread of the bark beetles, which thrive in warmer temperatures — better than almost anyone. But global climate policy isn’t something under their control.
“I can’t do anything about climate change,” Twitchell said. “I can do something about forest management.”
In many cases, managing forests to mitigate wildfire risks involves reducing fuels — thinning or strategically clearing the timber, especially beetle kill, that provides fires the biomass they need to get out of control.
It’s not nearly as easy as it may sound, and not only because of the sheer scale involved — 2.4 million acres in Colorado alone are in urgent need of treatment, the CSFS says. Each of the state’s 10 major forest types must be managed differently. A diverse array of communities and interest groups each have their own ideas about what a healthy forest looks like. Some timber is valuable enough that lumber mills will pay to cut it; much of it isn’t. A changing climate complicates things further, as forests that are cut or burned may grow back differently or not at all due to hotter, drier weather.
In the remote alpine forests of north-central Colorado, where beetle-killed lodgepole pines make up much of the tree cover, management means facilitating timber sales, which typically clear several hundred acres at a time in a patchwork pattern across the Never Summer Mountains. Projects undergo careful environmental review processes, and foresters ensure that cleared tracts are well-seeded, allowing younger trees to slowly regenerate and form part of a healthy, diverse ecosystem.
For many Coloradans, there’s only one question that matters: Can this kind of work prevent the next catastrophic megafire? Ron Cousineau, CSFS area manager for northwest Colorado, paused before answering.
“Probably,” Cousineau said. “Maybe. At the right scale, yes.”
With two-thirds of Colorado’s forested acres owned and managed by the federal government, and nearly all of the rest on private land, the CSFS’s goal is often to advise and coordinate, bringing together different jurisdictions and players in Colorado’s small timber industry behind a cohesive forest-management strategy.
At one 387-acre timber sale on Owl Mountain, south of Gould, that means overseeing a project that stretched across land owned by the State Land Board, a private ranch and the Bureau of Land Management, which allows state and local agencies to work on federal land under a six-year-old program called the Good Neighbor Authority. It means everything from selecting individual units of trees to be cleared in a multi-year review process to day-to-day oversight of Iron Pine, the Montana-based company that’s been hired to cut and haul the timber from the sale to a mill in Parshall.
It will take Iron Pine’s 17-person crew a few months to do the job. Land managers and loggers alike prefer to harvest in the winter; as long as the snow isn’t too deep, frozen-over roads and terrain make it easier for logging trucks and heavy machinery to move around without getting stuck in the mud or damaging the fragile alpine ecosystem. It’s Iron Pine’s first winter in Colorado, said owner Seth Beck, a sign that efforts to manage the state’s forests are stepping up.
“After these big megafires, with the state of the forest, it seems like there’s some proactive groups in the state, especially with the GNA program,” Beck said. “It seems like they’re trying to get things cleaned up.”
Even with the help of millions of dollars’ worth of industrial machinery — separate equipment to cut, skid, process, load and haul the timber — it’s hard work. At Owl Mountain, felled lodgepoles that make the grade will be hauled to Parshall, two hours away, to be made into two-by-fours; the rest are dumped into slash piles that will eventually be burned. Iron Pine’s crew will live in campers or motels for the duration of the project.
“It’s tough finding people that want to do this line of work,” Beck said. “We’re getting up at 2 in the morning, you’re driving, you’re in the heat, you’re in the cold, you’re in these machines 10, 12 hours a day, and then a couple-hour drive home where you’re camping and living away from home.”
Some conservative commentators, many of them climate change deniers, imagine a simple, market-based solution to Colorado’s forest-management workload: Open up more areas to timber harvesting, they say, and let the private sector take care of the problem. Some environmentalists, Twitchell said, fear the “big bad wolf” of industry knocking at the door of Colorado’s forests, eager to turn them into clear-cut wastelands if only big government would get out of the way.
In reality, the timber industry mostly can’t be bothered with Colorado. In contrast to age-old assumptions about the abundant natural resources of the West, it’s the flat, fast-growing temperate forests of the southeastern U.S. that have become the country’s top producers of timber, much of which now comes from industrial plantations. Even setting aside sustainability concerns, Colorado’s rugged terrain and semi-arid alpine forests aren’t capable of producing enough timber to make large-scale logging economical.
“It’s nothing like the southeast, nothing like the northwest or Alaska,” Twitchell said. “We have a very low level of industry.”
The lodgepole pines at Owl Mountain represent some of the more valuable timber resources that Colorado has to offer, which isn’t saying much — they’re good for cheap two-by-fours, and not much else. The $200,000 winning bid that Colorado Timber Resources, the sawmill in Parshall, paid for the sale may be just barely enough to cover the costs that the CSFS will incur in administering it.
“Nobody’s getting rich off of this,” said Twitchell. “I’m happy if we can just stay in the black.”
A report released by the CSFS last month estimated that the cost to perform fire-mitigation work on 2.4 million high-priority acres in Colorado would run to over $4.2 billion. In certain areas, timber sales might help offset some of those costs, but not by much, and for many Colorado forest types, like the piñon-juniper woodlands of the drought-stricken Western Slope, there’s simply no commercial timber value to speak of. The cost of “treatment” for high-priority piñon-juniper areas alone is estimated at over $1.1 billion, and no one’s going to do it for free.
With the work needing to be done on such a massive scale, the treatment of just a few thousand acres per year, as the CSFS is typically able to do, can feel like an act of triage, if not one of outright futility. The best that foresters can do is to prioritize projects where fuel reduction might make the most difference — and where they can get authorization to do the work. The Owl Mountain sale was selected, in part, because a fire in the immediate vicinity could threaten water supplies in the North Platte River watershed, as well as the nearby Whispering Pines subdivision in Gould.
“What’s the scale that would make a difference?” Twitchell asks himself. “More scale than what we’re doing, maybe — although I do think that what we’re doing up here makes a difference.”
On the other side of Highway 14, on a remote tract of State Forest land, the CSFS has held periodic timber sales for over a decade. This winter, harvesters are clearing stands of lodgepole pines beside tracts that were cut in 2008, and are now carpeted with young trees, three to five feet tall — an encouraging sign of renewal.
Unlike other types of trees, CSFS foresters say, lodgepoles can’t be thinned; they depend on growing together in dense stands to form strong root systems and a buffer against high winds. Instead, forest managers aim to clear stands of a few acres to several dozen acres at a time, in a pattern Twitchell compared to a moth-eaten sweater — in effect, attempting to simulate the smaller, more controlled wildfires that were a natural part of the fire-adapted lodgepoles’ life cycle until a century of human fire suppression changed everything.
The challenges of effective forest management aren’t only economic; Twitchell speaks often about the “social license” that foresters need to do their work. Even as more people grasp the importance of fuel treatment, it can be jarring to see the reality of heavy industrial machinery crawling over Colorado’s scenic mountainsides, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
“Private landowners in particular — they say, ‘It looks like a bomb went off,’” Twitchell said. There’s often a tension between forest aesthetics and forest ecology. Many residents find the carpet of twigs and small branches left behind by industrial logging ugly — one wealthy landowner, Twitchell recalled, even paid to have the debris painstakingly picked up and disposed of — but it’s one way to help ensure that the cleared area is well-seeded and prepared to regenerate.
C.J. Pittington’s family has been logging in and around Jackson County for most of the last century. He’s seen the ups and downs of the state’s small timber industry — his family’s Walden sawmill closed after a competitor opened on the other side of the Wyoming border in 2013 — and he’s seen the decline of the northern Colorado forests in the face of a changing climate, catastrophic fires and the beetle epidemic.
“The forest is in very poor health,” Pittington said. “It should’ve been managed a long time ago.”
It’s a frequent refrain among foresters and loggers, who say that Colorado and other Western states wasted precious time in not taking more aggressive action after the onset of bark beetle infestations in the last few decades. Now, it’s a race against time to recover some value from timber that’s been standing dead and slowly decaying for 15 years or more.
“The problem is, the timber’s so far gone, and some of it’s on the ground and rotten, and it’s no good,” Beck said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do in another couple years when it’s all on the ground. You’re not going to be able to salvage it. It’s going to be firewood.”
It’s all the more reason, forest managers say, to invest in such efforts now. Gov. Jared Polis’ 2021 budget request includes an additional $6 million in funding for a CSFS fire-mitigation grant program, but it will almost certainly take an expansion of federal spending to match the scale of the work that needs to be done. Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse, whose 2nd Congressional District includes many of the areas scorched by the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires, has led a push for federal wildfire mitigation and recovery funding to be included in congressional COVID-19 relief legislation.
The stakes of managing Colorado’s forests have never been higher, but the challenges are formidable, and the choices aren’t easy. As loggers and foresters watched the 2020 wildfires devastate communities like Grand Lake, they couldn’t help but think: What if the sometimes ugly work of thinning and cutting had been done in the right places, at the right scale, years ago?
“People don’t want to come to their second home and see a 500-acre clear cut,” Pittington said. “But it would have saved their homes.”
That’s the balancing act that the CSFS has to pull off, as Colorado’s climate gets hotter and drier, the ecological impacts to its cherished forests deepen and the threat of catastrophic fires looms larger.
“When you think about what we could manage, and what we do manage, it’s a pretty small percentage,” said Twitchell. “But you also have to balance that against social license. We wouldn’t do this, because it wouldn’t be the right thing to do ecologically, but even if you could mow it all down to protect communities, you wouldn’t do that.”