Steamboat Springs In a barley patch in the Seedhouse Corridor of the Routt National Forest, a one-armed monster of a machine moves across the landscape on a set of tracks.
From the cab of the diesel-fed behemoth, the operator maneuvers the arm toward a clump of trees. Like a hand grabbing a baseball bat, the arm clamps onto the stem of a tree, separating it from its base with the whirl of an embedded saw.
Brawn and a steady swing of an axe once defined the worth of a logger, but just as a chainsaw replaced the iron blade, machines are replacing men.
More than 30 timber sales currently are active in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests - more than half in Colorado.
At the barley patch timber sale, Andy Cadenhead, a forester with the National Forest Service, walked through the lodgepole pines, making sure the loggers cut what was allowed.
"We started planning for these sales in 1999, knowing we would be facing a pine beetle and spruce beetle epidemic," said Cadenhead, who noted every fourth tree was marked with a blue ribbon to show loggers what should be cut.
"We planned a number of sales simultaneously," he said. "This site was picked because it was the most susceptible area and most likely to be attacked by the beetles."
Splashes of red and gray from dead or dying lodgepole pines filled the barley patch area, just outside the Hinman campground. According to the National Forest Service, more than 250,000 pines are infected with pine beetles in the Routt National Forest, but despite the bug infestation, the trees are valued timber.
"When we had the crews out marking, there weren't that many pine beetles in here," he said. "If there were beetles in the trees, we'd mark them. We tried to get some spacing between trees, but also we would try to leave the best and take the not-so-best."
Cadenhead added that a second timber harvest was occurring a short distance away at Mill Creek. He said the National Forest Service office in Laramie, Wyo., negotiated the timber-harvesting bid for the 600 to 700 acres included in the Mill Creek and barley patch sales.
"Our intention with a partial cut is to keep the look of a mature-looking forest, and we were hoping to get there and do this before the beetles show up," he said.
"If we could plan it over again we would probably do some more clear cutting," Cadenhead said. "The right thing to do would be to start over with the stand because of the pine beetles, but we can't turn on a dime to respond to a rapidly changing forest."
A crew of six men from the Heggie Logging and Equipment Company manned a group of machines in the forest. Some of the machines cut the logs, others de-limbed them, while one did both. Jerry Heggie, senior woods boss, said a crew of up to 35 men worked the woods a generation ago before the job was automated.
The timber is destined to be cut into lumber to be used in homebuilding, Heggie said. Three trucks make two round-trip journeys to Laramie, Wyo., daily. Each truck hauls about 5,300 board feet of timber, or 60 to 65 trees.
Heggie, who is contracted to harvest the Mill Creek and barley patch sales, said he expects to finish the job sometime in the late fall. In the end, more than 1,400 trees will be harvested from the 700 acres.
Cadenhead said the earnings of the sale will be used to cover reforestation costs, such as the 60,000 seedlings that will be planted in the Routt National Forest this year, but the bulk of the money will be used to prepare for future timber salvage sales.
"These thinnings of the forest are meant to reduce the fuels, capture the value of the logs and make sure we have a nice green forest the next time around," he said. "We always plan for next generations of forests."