W hile beetles have devoured Grand County trees for over a decade, there’s still plenty to hash out over the resulting timber.
Grand County commissioners hosted a second timber workshop discussion on Monday, Dec. 9. The workshop created an opportunity for loggers and mill operators to express their frustrations and concerns with public lands managers over timber harvesting, particularly in the U.S. Forest Service Sulphur Ranger District. It allowed foresters and public land managers to share their perspectives and specific constraints with players in the timber industry as well.
The workshop was also attended by representatives for Colorado’s U.S. Congress members Michael Bennet, Mark Udall and Jared Polis as well as KC Becker, Colorado State representative for District 13, which includes Grand County. Key among the concerns discussed were timber supply in Grand County and sustaining a lumber industry into the future.
As representatives with the Sulphur Ranger District noted, loggers and residents of Colorado often look at the state’s millions of acres of dead trees and wonder why they’re not being harvested. But many of those beetle-killed stands are located in wilderness or roadless areas, where law restricts logging. Other areas can’t be harvested because of slope limitations. In these areas, stands are located on mountains and hillsides too steep for tree access and removal.
In the Sulphur Ranger District, foresters have completed landscape-level analysis of areas where logging could be feasible. Over the last decade, the district has sold around 25 timber sales ranging in size from 30 to 1,200 acres, according to Kevin McLaughlin with the Sulphur Ranger District.
Foresters have also made timber available through stewardship contracts, roadside hazard treatment contracts, and by selling slash and deck piles left behind by other loggers who couldn’t use the wood.
Still, some mill operators challenged forest managers to redefine what they consider accessible for timber harvest, including how they define an acceptable slope. They said logging technology has changed, which could facilitate harvesting in some steep areas. Dead stands should be removed wherever possible to prevent wildfire risk and promote regeneration, mill operators argued.
Forest managers explained there are also reasons to leave standing dead trees in place. They can be valuable in the environmental cycle, and are important to wildlife and watershed hydrology.
“In areas we can access with the existing road system, outside those constraints … I can tell you, we’ve hit most of it (in the Sulphur Ranger District),” said Matt Paciorek, deputy district ranger.
U.S. Forest Service representatives also explained the importance of federal funding in making timber sales available. When budgets are strapped, forest district managers can’t hire the staff needed to make sales possible. It also influences their ability to make tree removal contracts. That budget is set by lawmakers, not foresters.
“We get a budget every year, and in that budget is money set aside for timber projects,” Paciorek said. “How much money we get is out of our control.”
Staffers for U.S. Sens. Udall and Bennet and for U.S. Rep. Polis said Colorado’s Congressmen are working to bring more funding to Colorado’s timber industry. Udall and Bennet, for example, are working to permanently authorize stewardship contract as part of the Farm Bill. “We’re trying. You folks have all seen how tough it is sometimes to get stuff done in (Washington,) D.C.,” said Noah Koerper, a representative for Sen. Bennet. “But I think there’s some momentum for this.”
Along with federal funding, foresters said they need a logging industry to help with forestry management through the decades.
“Having local industry as a tool and partner is essential to getting what we want to have done on the ground,” Paciorek said. “Local industry is key for us.”
Still, that industry might need to change over time. According to Ron Cousineau with the Colorado State Forest Service, the five mills operating in Grand County need around 4,000 acres of timber harvest each year to run at capacity.
As large trees are harvested or fall and rot in the Sulphur Ranger District, it will be difficult to produce more big saw logs. Instead, management will focus on fuel mitigation work and other stewardship projects. Those trees might sufficiently supply businesses like pellet plants. But the shift could mean mills trying to produce two-by-fours and other structural lumber have to go elsewhere for supplies. Businesses need to consider their need for future supplies and where those supplies will be sourced.
“It started with a question to us about how much (timber) we should supply,” said Sulphur Ranger district ranger Craig Magwire. “I’m trying to turn the question around — how do you determine how many (local timber mills) are enough?”
For the time-being, it seems neither government nor lumber workers have an answer. Commissioner Merrit Linke acknowledged the difficult job the U.S. Forest Service has in managing lands for recreation, environmental protection and logging. Commissioners also recognized the importance of a timber industry to the local economy.
“I think that’s why we’re all here, and we have these discussions,” said commissioner James Newberry.
The commissioners might host another workshop come spring. In the meantime, they reminded local businesses that they’re still available to listen to their concerns.
“We’re good at being the voice going up the food chain … talking to industry or the forest service,” Commissioner Gary Bumgarner said. “We are the voice of the people of Grand County.”
Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.