Tree planting regenerates forest

Managing the impact of the Spruce Beetle is no easy task. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

Leobardo Cortez of Cutting Edge Forestry surveys the landscape on the last day of a timber regeneration project in Rio Grande National Forest. In the foreground, a spruce seedling takes root.

With a tip of his hardhat and a flash of a smile, Leobardo Cortez drove his weary crew out of Trujillo Meadows Campground near the New Mexico border in a dusty van. And just like that, the 2015 timber regeneration season in the Conejos Peak Ranger District of Rio Grande National Forest - a season that saw 103,000 spruce trees planted on 265 acres of beetle-ravaged forests in just two weeks - was finished.

Cortez and his crew of eight spent nearly every waking hour of the second half of August bent over, hacking away at the Rocky Mountain loam with pickax-like tools called hoedads, and gingerly planting tiny year-old spruce seedlings to replace the towering trees that once dominated the remote campground near Cumbres Pass.

"I have a lot of respect for these guys," said Michael Tooley, Supervisory Forester for the Conejos Peak Ranger District. "This is hard work."

Michael Tooley, Supervising Forester for the Conejos Peak Ranger District of Rio Grande National Forest, wraps up a timber regeneration project at Trujillo Meadows Campground west of Antonito.

The foot-high spruce seedlings were germinated in a nursery in Idaho, from seeds harvested locally and stored in a seed vault since 1977.

Tooley gazed across the wide vistas now visible from the campground, five years after crews began removing trees killed by the ravenous spruce beetle. The surrounding mountainsides, though swathed in gray-brown stands of beetle-devoured trees, will recover on their own, in their own time. The campground's signature trees were cleared out more as a safety issue, to prevent the colossal trunks from crashing down on unsuspecting campers.

"It's a safe place now," said Tooley. "As things continue to heal and green up, it'll be nice again."

The spruce beetle epidemic that is transforming the landscapes of southwestern Colorado is the result of "a perfect storm of conditions," explained Mike Blakeman, a spokesperson for Rio Grande National Forest. The high-elevation spruce-fir forests in the area go long periods without large fires, in part because of higher moisture levels, and "the forest starts unraveling a little bit," said Blakeman.

"You'll start having blowdowns occur."

"From 2000 to 2002, we had that mega-drought," said Blakeman. "So your beetle populations are growing in that blowdown, right? Then that drought moves in, the trees are stressed, and they can't produce the pitch to expel those beetles. The beetle population explodes."

"Once that population reaches a certain level, it doesn't matter whether the trees are healthy or not. The sheer number of beetles will overwhelm that forest," Blakeman said.

Blakeman rejects the notion that beetle-devoured mountainsides are unsightly.

"The forest is just starting over," he said.

Beetle-damaged forests aren't an ecological disaster, said Tooley.

"Beetle kill is a natural process," said Tooley. "We look at it as a large-scale disturbance process, and we try to see how that fits in with our forest plan."

Because the Forest Service is mandated with balancing numerous uses for natural resources, such as timber harvesting, recreation, and protecting sensitive environments, different areas of the forest are managed in myriad ways.

"In our wilderness areas, the plan is to do nothing and let this natural process occur," said Tooley. "It could be followed by fire or not. We can't say."

In other areas, such as campgrounds or timber management areas, the idea is to utilize forest products, as well as maintaining safety and protecting natural resources.

In addition to Trujillo Meadows Campground, the tree planting project established seedlings in two "timber salvage" areas, named Snowshoe and Wolf Beetle. There, beetle-killed trees are harvested by private permit holders.

Though dead, the trees still make excellent lumber, said Andrea Jones, District Ranger for the Conejos Peak District.

"After quite some time it does start to deteriorate," Jones said. "It begins to check and crack. At that point it's useful for house logs."

Andrea Jones, District Ranger for the Conejos Peak Ranger District of Rio Grande National Forest, strolls through Trujillo Meadows Campground on the last day of a timber regeneration project that planted 103,000 trees.

Once the dead trees have deteriorated even further, they remain useful as firewood, or as "biomass," which still has numerous applications, such as pellets for stoves.

Removing dead trees has little bearing on fire mitigation, said Tooley.

"In high-elevation spruce-fir forest, the science indicates there's not much of a difference between how fire would burn in an area that has or has not been affected by beetles," Tooley said. "We're not going to stop a fire by salvaging these areas."

Tooley added that the forest service does some mitigation along private property boundaries, and wants to reduce downed timber in some areas so that when fires occur they are more easily contained.

The Forest Service keeps its promises to effectively and efficiently manage damaged areas, said Blakeman.

"People in the Valley see the dead trees, so they're probably wondering what we're doing about it," Blakeman said. "Well, we're doing salvage sales, and we're helping to nudge that regeneration process forward in these timber management areas."

The regeneration projects are not part of an effort to rescue the forest, said Tooley.

"We are not needed to save the landscape and hold the world together," Tooley said. "It's a matter of how do we overlap the ecological processes with what we try to accomplish with the directions we've been given as a multiple-use agency."

Tooley expects the timber regeneration program to continue for another 20 years.

"We bring our projects full-circle," said Tooley. "We do our best to follow through."

Though the Trujillo Meadows campground may not feel like the densely-forested hideaway it once did, there's a silver lining to the dearth of tall trees.

"There used to be just one campsite that had a view of the lake," said Jones. "And it was always reserved. Now there are a whole bunch of lake-view sites."