Between 1994 and 2000, the U.S. Forest Service logged an average of 20.8 million
board feet of wood a year from the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest worth about
Anti-logging groups say the work on national
forestland is unnecessary and damaging to the ecosystem. It reduces biodiversity, causes water pollution and increases the risk of wildfire.
They point fingers at the roads the logging crews build as a big cause of destruction
in the forest.
Meanwhile, Forest Service officials have a new mantra when it comes to logging on public land.
"In my mind, it's forest health," U.S. Forest Service Supervisory Forester Gary Roper said. "It's providing timber product but it's also ecosystem management."
The Forest Service's position on one of the most controversial action it takes on public land logging is a hand-in-hand connection between the country's want for wood product and maintaining optimally healthy stands of trees, he said.
In the Yampa Ranger District of the Routt National Forest, District Ranger Howard Sargent pointed out that, along with the worth of the wood, most portions of the forest approved for logging have identified why the work is needed to improve the health of forest.
Some stands received what is called a selective cut, which is when selected trees are chopped down, leaving the remaining ones to grow without competition.
Other stands receive an over-story cut, which removes taller, older trees from the area, leaving younger trees to grow without competition.
Clear-cuts still happen on Forest Service land and are a common site in the Yampa District in the Gore Range.
"Clear-cuts are reserved for when you need to replace the entire stand very old stands or sick stands," Yampa District Forester Ric Ondrejka said.
Many clear-cut sites in forest sales are identified as being infected with dwarf mistletoe, a common and lethal parasitic plant. The plant grows into the trunks of lodgepole pine trees and spreads through stands of trees by exploding its seeds at speeds of up to 60 mph into other pine trees, according to Forest Service research.
"Forestry as a profession has always viewed trees as a renewable resource," Sargent said.
Therefore, maintaining healthy stands, including clear-cutting sick trees that could infect healthy trees on public land, is priority because of future wood harvest.
Sargent also explained that regeneration of the stand is an important element in achieving the renewable resource. It also is the law.
Ondrejka and Sargent toured one of the clear-cut areas in the Gore Range on a bright, mid-September day.
The spot, about 20 acres, was one of 34 units in the Gore Pass Timber Sale, logged between 1996 and 1999. The one-time forest now was dotted with about seven 10- to 20-foot piles of tree debris waiting to be burned.
While the remains of the old forest were waiting to be burned, signs of a new one were coming in.
Kneeling down near one of the piles, Ondrejka lifted a footlong pine tree, probably about one year old.
"You can look all over; there are a bunch of trees growing in," he said.
Scattered in the clear cut were numerous signs of a new forest growing.
"It's a requirement that we have started regeneration five years after harvest," Ondrejka said.
Only about 5 percent of logged areas are replanted by hand, leaving the majority of the land to regrow naturally. After timber is cut, the tops of the trees, which contains most of the seeds, are left on the ground to naturally regrow the forest.
"If you pay attention that the logging is done properly, the forest will take care of itself," Ondrejka said.
An example of such regeneration lies to the east of the Gore Pass Timber Sale unit. There, older logged trees have given birth to a 10-year-old patch of trees that stand waist high and a 50-year-old stand of trees looks almost full grown. Both areas were once clear-cut and Ondrejka said are good examples of how the forest is sustainable.
Harlin Savage of the American Lands Alliance, an environmental group against logging on the national forests said she believes it is possible to do sustainable logging.
"But I don't think the Forest Service has demonstrated (nationally) it can do it," Savage said.
On the larger scale, the 200 endangered or threatened species in national forests and studies showing polluted watersheds are indicators that the Forest Service should stop logging on public land, even if new practices show sustainability, Savage said.
"Trees will usually grow back," environmentalist Rocky Smith said. "But the logging can damage wildlife habitat for certain species."
With numerous timber sales on the horizon in the Routt and Medicine Bow forests, the Forest Service isn't showing signs of stopping logging.
However, Sargent said he does believe it can be done in forest with a minimal impact.
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