Wildfire crisis dilemma: ‘thinning’ forests vs. buzz cut to protect Colorado and West from incendiary mayhem

Lodgepole pines grow thick in mountain foothill forests west of Denver. Government-backed loggers cut down thousands. This left a hole across several acres of the popular Flying J Ranch Park that, close up, looks to visitors more like mowing than thinning.

“It is devastating, really sad,” said Sandra Griffith, 49, a Conifer resident who runs on park trails and, after the cutting, noticed a surge of chipmunks at her nearby home.

“Please don’t remove this forest. Take a longer view. If you remove trees, global warming will increase. What damage is the government doing to the planet by mowing down all these trees?”

But forest tree cutting is gaining momentum in Colorado and the West — a federal push boosted by more than $5 billion from Congress to protect populated areas from worsening wildfires as the climate warms.

U.S. Forest Service documents describe an unprecedented 10-year project to prevent wildfire catastrophes by “treating” — defined as prescribed burns or thinning — up to 50 million acres, mostly public forests in the West (65% of the forest in Colorado is federally-managed). Federal planners have prioritized forests around urban areas including Colorado’s Front Range from Fort Collins southward to Pueblo, designating this 3.5 million-acre area as one of the West’s most imperiled “high-risk fire-sheds.”

In that Colorado area, roughly 100,000 acres of forest will be thinned or burned (prescribed fires now face a more rigorous approval process after one blew out of control in New Mexico) before 2027 and more than  200,000 acres will be treated by 2032, regional leaders of the Forest Service told the Denver Post. The agency’s documents refer to a total tree-removal “footprint” of 60,000 acres in five years and up to 117,500 acres before 2032. Congress approved billions for the tree-cutting in this year’s “infrastructure” and “inflation reduction” bills as critical climate adaptation.

The government faces opposition from forest lovers and environmental advocates who contend logging contractors operating with minimal oversight often mow down trees — rather than thinning — converting forests to grasslands, which the opponents argue could actually accelerate wind-driven fire. They accuse federal authorities of short-circuiting legally required environmental impact reviews. They favor “fire-wise” home safety as a smarter way to shave wildfire risks.

The argument comes down to ecological nuance and costs, which range from $500 to $7,000 an acre. It can be more feasible for loggers to cut broadly across an acre or more, rather than thinning that sometimes requires hiking on steep and hard-to-reach terrain, lugging chainsaws to remove trees selectively and optimizing spacing and species diversity.

“We can’t afford to do that,”  said Jacqueline Buchanan, deputy regional director of the Forest Service at the headquarters in Denver. “That would cost more like $300 billion, not $3 billion.”

If forests aren’t treated, “the impacts could be greater,” Buchanan said. “That’s what is poised to happen.”

Fury over forest cutting intensified this summer and a grassroots Eco-Integrity Alliance deployed a billboard in central Denver urging President Biden and Colorado’s senators to “stop wasting $3 billion” for logging national forests.

The federal push to protect people against wildfires relies largely on local governments and requires cooperation with private landowners (60% of Colorado is privately owned), with federal funds funneled through state agencies such as the Colorado State Forest Service.

That’s how work began in the mountain foothills forests southwest of Denver in Jefferson County, including the 418-acre Flying J Ranch Park and the 667-acre Meyer Ranch Park – areas residents increasingly flock to for recreation as cities densify.

“I’ve been up to see our mitigation projects up close. I’ve been to the Flying J Ranch. I understand the concerns,” said Jefferson County Commissioner Lesley Dahlkemper, who created and leads the county’s Wildfire Risk Reduction Task Force and also serves on Gov. Jared Polis’ Colorado Fire Commission.

“But the benefits far outweigh the issues that are raised. We know that mitigation can help keep communities safe. And, when we do it well, it is actually very good for the habitat once native grasses come back,” Dahlkemper said.

Forest cutting planned for Jefferson County foothills “really focuses on thinning, so we are not wiping out forests,” she said. “It’s all about the end results: keeping our communities safe, ensuring that fires burn lower to the ground so firefighters can contain them more quickly. It’s not if, but when, and we want to ensure we’re doing everything on the front end to keep our communities safe.”

So far, trees have been cut from about 2,300 acres of forest in the county, Dahlkemper estimated. And county officials said they’ll thin — not “clear-cut” — another 1,340 acres of forest on county “open space” over the next five years. It’s unclear how much additional cutting is planned.

Denver contractors, too, are removing trees from the city’s mountain parks, which cover 14,000 acres. City contractors since 2010 have cut or thinned trees on 2,000 acres to mimic natural processes and re-establish mountain meadows, Denver Parks and Recreation deputy manager Scott Gilmore said.

“Going into 2024, we’re looking at doing approximately 300 more acres of landscape management in some of the mountain parks the city owns,” Gilmore said. “Our forest is unhealthy, and a lodgepole pine forest should burn. Our forests are not burning because we put out the fires. We’re trying to re-create some of the natural ecosystems as if people were not around.”

At the Meyer Ranch Park, a forest restoration and fire mitigation contract for treating 32 acres of mixed forest, begun last winter by Colorado Forestry & Fire Mitigation, led to new growth of grasses and flowers during summer. That treatment has drawn fewer complaints.

Federal officials over the past year initiated the nationwide push to “get ahead of fires.” For more than a decade, federal land managers have warned that overly-thick forests, a warming climate, house and commercial construction at forest edges, and increasingly aggressive fire suppression are leading to a full-blown wildfire and forest health crisis.

Biden administration Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met in May 2021 with Gov. Polis, Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. Joe Neguse and Forest Service leaders in charred woods ravaged by Colorado’s record 208,913-acre Cameron Peak Fire (2020), a place where prior tree-thinning enabled evacuations. Federal experts revealed plans to remove up to 70% of trees in forests along Colorado’s Front Range, creating fire breaks designed to both revitalize forests and slow future flames.

Forest authorities at the time said strategic re-planting would be necessary to maintain vegetation crucial for offsetting a net loss of trees and drawing down carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. Hotter, drier conditions combined with wind increasingly have favored not only forest fires but also catastrophic grass fires, even during winter.

Ecologists critical of large-scale forest cutting point to studies, including work by U.S. Forest Service researchers, that prioritize home protection over tree removal to minimize destruction.

“The Biden administration is telling the public they need to ‘thin’ small trees and underbrush. The public hears that and they think: pruning shears. They don’t realize this is actually bulldozers and chain saws. These are industrial, commercial logging operations,” said forest ecologist Chad Hanson, director of the California-based John Muir Project to save the nation’s ailing forests.

Hanson warned of emerging “sterilized landscapes” where forests once stood around cities.

“They’re talking about logging tens of millions of acres, and that will cause three big harms,” he said. “One, when they do these logging projects under the guise of ‘thinning,’ it creates drier and windier conditions that will make the fires move faster toward towns. That puts communities at greater risk. Two, it makes climate change worse, degrading our carbon sink and taking carbon out of the forest. Three, this is damaging wildlife habitat, hurting biodiversity.”

Full environmental reviews are essential, and Colorado residents deserve to know specific plans for tree-cutting, said Rocky Smith, a Denver-based consultant who has helped guide non-profits including Rocky Mountain Wild, the Colorado Environmental Coalition and High Country Conservation Advocates.

“The Forest Service isn’t telling us where they’ll cut or what method they will use,” Smith said. “We’re concerned about the overall arc of the cutting. I don’t think there’s a plan. And there’s a tremendous amount of money available from the infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act,” he said. “We have a big concern about wildlife habitat.”

Homes can be “hardened” to withstand fire, preserving forests, some experts contend, by installing sprinklers and trimming back trees. “Clear silicone coatings on cedar fences will make them fire resistant. You surround houses with gravel, or something that won’t ignite. You cut back overhanging tree limbs, cut some trees down,” said Michael Brame, who runs Evergreen-based Tough House to help owners prepare. “You could still have a healthy environment, with trees absorbing carbon dioxide, and not have a new grassland that’s going to go up in flames.”

As government-backed forest thinning revs up, homeowners near forests say they’ll resist, emphasizing they have insurance, tolerate risk and mitigate around their property.

South of Denver and west of Sedalia, Deanna Meyer, 51, who raises goats and chickens, questioned whether grassy gaps in forests would slow or speed wind-whipped large fires and was “extraordinarily concerned” about tree cutting.

“I’m surrounded by forest and will do everything in my power to save it,” Meyer said, pointing to past logging in her area that left landscapes resembling war zones.

“They open up the canopy, take the shade off hillsides. You destroy plant life that holds in moisture, heat up the biome by 10 to 20 degrees. ‘Thinned’ forests become hot, dry and dusty,” she said. “And forests are moist and cool.”

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