Missionary Ridge timber sale in limbo

If a tree falls in the forest, who gets it?

That’s the question on many people’s minds these days when they consider the fire-damaged Missionary Ridge area near Durango.

Two years ago in June, a wildfire raged across more than 70,000 acres around Missionary Ridge, destroying 56 homes and leaving behind a blighted ecosystem. At the heart of a controversy over the fate of the land involved is a proposed timber sale set up by the Forest Service and hotly opposed by some environmental groups in the area.

Colorado Wild is the group most vigorously fighting the timber sale, although other environmental organizations are also opposed to or at least concerned about it.

In December 2003, Colorado Wild filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service for approving the sale. In February of this year, District Court Judge Zita Weinshienk halted the logging pending USFS compliance with wildlife-monitoring requirements necessary to ensure wildlife protection and safety. There are also serious concerns regarding the effect that salvage logging will have on erosion and watershed quality.

Her decision has left local loggers and others who would benefit from the sale in limbo, including the Western Excelsior plant in Mancos.

Excelsior is used to make environmentally friendly erosion-control blankets, animal bedding, and packing material, among other products, and is produced from aspen trees.

Western Excelsior is the largest private employer in Montezuma County, with 120 employees, 80 percent of whom are minorities. The delay in the sale has proven to be very frustrating for the company. Officials are concerned about the quality of the wood, which has already been sitting for two years.

According to Norm Birtcher, forester and assistant plant manager, the wood is only usable if the trees are still standing. “Once they fall,” he said, “not only are they not any good, but they create a hazard for livestock and other animals traveling through the area.”

He claimed that the trees only have about one more year still standing — if that — before they begin to fall, “jackstrawing the entire area.” But it may already be too late to harvest them.

Spring is a critical time for the wood, Birtcher said. “In the spring time, with the high winds and wet soil, that’s when the trees are most vulnerable and most likely to blow down, and then they’re unusable,” he said.

Western Excelsior is interested only in the aspen, but other companies want to harvest the dead conifer, which Birtcher said “has an even shorter time to be used, before sap rot and boring insects set in.”

When asked how he feels the Forest Service handled the sale, Birtcher is supportive. “They have been very judicious in choosing what is to be sold. It’s really only 6 percent of the entire burn (approximately 3,800 acres).”

He added, “It’s just good common sense to salvage the lumber – It’s either that or cut down green trees.”

That’s a vision that puts fear into the heart of every environmentalist. So why the opposition?

Jeff Berman, director of Colorado Wild, had a ready answer. “It (the argument) sounds great but it’s not true. It’s about the total impact, not just the trees, and burned areas are much more sensitive.”

After a moment’s thought he added, “A forest is not just green trees – it is made up of all the organisms that live there.”

Berman said Colorado Wild is not opposed to all salvage logging. “Timber sales are perfectly legal but, since we the taxpayers subsidize this, we should do it in places where we can actually do some good. For instance, around residential areas. That way, we can create jobs and help.”

Berman and others believe the risk of damage to the Missionary Ridge area is far greater than the benefits that would be reaped. “We sued the San Juan National Forest on legal violations regarding laws protecting water and wildlife.”

Mark Pearson of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, who joined the original appeal to the timber sale but is not a party to Colorado Wild’s lawsuit, commented, “The Forest Service hoped to do a bunch of logging – they rushed and cut corners and they got caught. The question is, now that the ball’s back in their court, will they do things right?”

The area in question is extremely steep and roadless, the environmentalists argue. New roads would have to be built to reach the timber, or at least old roads would have to be re-constructed. Erosion or contamination of the watershed (including the soil) could affect the drinking water of three municipalities, Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio.

But Birtcher said Western Excelsior “is not insensitive to the environment,” and would take every precaution necessary to protect the land and watershed, including putting in water bars to slow runoff and reseeding after work was completed.

“The EIS (environmental impact statement) was very comprehensive,” Birtcher said. “The Forest Service has strict restrictions for salvage logging.”

Berman maintains that such mitigation efforts would prove too costly and would end up far outweighing any profits made from the use of the lumber.

Another important issue, according to Berman, is that “dying trees serve a purpose – fire is nature’s way of maintaining healthy forests. Plus, burned trees provide important habitat for wildlife. The three-toed woodpecker directly requires burned trees to live in.”

Also benefiting from burned trees is the ever-controversial lynx, a federally threatened species that has been reintroduced in Southwest Colorado. Fallen trees provide denning habitat for them.

Birtcher, however, noted that all dead fuels are potentially subject to reburning if another wildfire should be ignited in the area.

Those in favor of the sale also remind the public that only a very small area of the burn is being considered for the harvest.

Berman’s response was, “Six percent of the perimeter of the burn area, but not everything within the area burned. Numbers don’t mean anything.”

According to Colorado Wild, 31 percent of the entire area burned at high intensity, 31 percent at moderate intensity, which means that it is still alive and regenerating, and 30 percent burned at low intensity or not at all.

Birtcher sees no logical reason not to harvest dead timber from the Missionary Ridge site. “It’s not a national park, it’s not a preserve, it’s not a wilderness area,” he said. “One use is to provide timber in a sustainable fashion.

“Instead, one person was able to halt the sale. Time, energy and money have been wasted because of one person.”

What should be done with a burned area, if not salvage logging? According to a 1995 report authored by scientists specializing in post-fire salvage logging, titled the Beschta report, “human intervention on the post-fire landscape may substantially or completely delay recovery, remove the elements of recovery or accentuate the damage… In this light there is little reason to believe that post-fire salvage logging has any positive ecological benefits.” The recommendation then, is to “allow natural recovery and recognize the temporal scales involved with ecosystem evaluation.”

The report goes on to address the bigger picture of the health of the entire forest, beyond just the burned trees. Soil condition is a major concern. The report claims, “No management activity shout be undertaken which does not protect soil integrity…. Efforts should focus on reducing erosion and sedimentation from existing human-caused disturbances, e.g. roads, grazing, salvage logging.”

This report is posted on Colorado Wild’s website (coloradowild.org) and provided much of the fuel for the controversy around this timber sale.

Another issue for Colorado Wild is that the area has already been reseeded. The Beschta report states, “Active reseeding has not been shown to advance regeneration and is… associated with additional problems and costs.”

When asked why then, Colorado Wild would be concerned about an area that has been reseeded when maybe it didn’t need to be, Berman replied, “It’s already been done, and at the taxpayer’s expense. The Forest Service violated many scientific recommendations; this was just another one. It may or may not be effective, but do we want to undermine any potential good that may come of it?”

What will happen to the burned trees is still open to debate. When asked to comment on the lawsuit, representatives from the Forest Service declined, as the case is still in litigation. Both Berman and Birtcher said “the ball is in the court of the Forest Service.”

At least they agree on one thing.

From April 2004.