The U.S. Forest Service is proposing to chop down a lot of trees in order to keep parts of a forest alive.
Logging on 15,000 acres of mostly National Forest between Toponas and Kremmling is the focus of the USFS's "Rock Creek Integrated Management Project." It is the largest project proposed in the Rocky Mountain Region, which includes Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.
The affected acres are sprinkled throughout a 75,000-acre area of public forests as roads allow. A small section of BLM land, as well as some state and private land, is included.
Between 40 million and 50 million board feet of wood could be harvested during the project. That's the amount of wood the Routt National Forest produces in three years, said Andy Cadenhead, forester with the Routt National Forest.
The idea of chopping down trees to save other trees may be counterintuitive, but it's necessary because of exploding beetle populations, Cadenhead said.
Much of the forest surrounding Gore Pass is mature Lodgepole Pine, trees that are susceptible to mountain pine beetles. With recent drought, beetle populations have grown exponentially.
Forest officials say decreasing the density of some stands through logging will make remaining trees stronger, because they won't have to compete for water and nutrients with as many trees. So, the trees that are left will be better able to fend off the deadly beetles.
"Success in this case doesn't mean we won and the beetles are gone," said Oscar Martinez, USFS ranger for the Yampa District of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests. Rather, success is measured by how much of the landscape remains green with mature trees.
"There still will be dead stands," he said.
Live trees are important for scenic and recreation values, as well as for timber production. More than half of the project area is managed for timber production under the forestwide plan for the Routt National Forest.
Logging also will remove already infected trees, preventing the beetles in those trees from multiplying and spreading. And, it will remove dead trees and possibly help prevent fuel loading that would lead to large-scale fires.
Another focus of the project involves spraying trees and other smaller scale treatments to protect valuable trees and decrease beetle populations.
Comments on the Rock Creek plan will be accepted until Aug. 2, and so far, USFS officials said they haven't received much feedback.
However, the project is being watched throughout the region.
At least one environmental group is paying close attention, saying that the plan is simply too big.
The project also is of interest to other governmental groups in the area, such as the EPA, because the project is the first Environmental Impact Statement to come through under the new Healthy Forest Restoration Act. Under that act, the USFS is not required to consider alternatives to the proposed action.
USFS officials have said that the plan has to be big to have a fighting chance of keeping some green, mature trees.
Cadenhead said the project could be smaller, but then it would have less of a positive effect.
"The less you do, the less potential you have to keep it green," Cadenhead said.
The goal of the work is to have fewer dead trees in the end than if the beetles simply ran their course.
"If we sat back and did nothing, there would be a lot of trees dead," Cadenhead said. But by logging some trees now, "We're thinking that we're going to end up with less trees dead. That's a hard concept to get to."
It's also a concept that Rocky Smith, Forest Watch program director for Colorado Wild, does not agree with.
The proposed project, he said, is "way too big and unfocused, and will cause at least as much damage as it's intended to prevent."
Smith also doesn't accept the argument that the point of the project is to keep more trees alive.
"What do you do with a chain saw? You're killing trees," he said.
Smith said he would rather see a smaller, more focused project or projects. Or, he would rather let the forest run its course.
Smith said the project is the biggest he has seen in his 20 years of examining projects.
He also questioned whether the amount of logging proposed would even be possible as the timber industry might not be big enough and the market for timber might not be strong enough.
Cadenhead said it is uncertain whether the timber industry could handle such a large-scale project. Forests across the West are faced with huge tree mortality because of beetles, so there is more need than supply when it comes to logging. But, because the Rock Creek area is closer to some tree mills and there are living trees to be cut, some companies might be more interested in this area than others, he said.
Signs of active beetles already are obvious in areas off of Gore Pass, where red, dead trees stand out among the sea of green. There are aspen stands and open meadows, but almost everywhere, the area is thick with mature Lodgepole Pines.
The USFS is proposing three main treatments to use throughout the 15,000 acres. Where to use which treatment will be decided based on the beetles' progress.
In areas where beetles have not yet arrived, preventative actions will be used, Martinez said. That includes thinning to change stand conditions so trees are healthier and more likely to withstand beetle attacks.
If the beetles already are in a stand but haven't taken over it, suppression actions, such as removing as many infected trees as possible, will be taken.
And if the stand is more or less dead, the goal will be to get the trees out and avoid fuel loading, Martinez said.
Along with that, there will be spraying of some high-value trees, such as those in campgrounds. Some roads will be rerouted or extended to prepare for expected increases in water flow and impacts to watersheds, and also for access if an entire stand is marked for treatment.
Phil Strobel, an environmental engineer with the EPA, said the project is interesting because of its size and because it is the first Environmental Impact Statement in the region under the new Healthy Forest Restoration Act. The EPA comments on every draft EIS, but those comments are not finished, so Strobel could not speak specifically about the project.
Time is of the essence. The USFS is giving itself five years to make a dent in the beetle populations and keep some green trees. If the beetles get too much of a foothold, Martinez acknowledged that there isn't much else the USFS can do.