Agency launches long-term spruce, aspen treatment plan
Responding to habitat shifts resulting from climate change will be one of the considerations for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests as the Forest Service embarks on a new forest treatment project over the next eight to 12 years.
Its new Spruce Beetle Epidemic and Aspen Decline Management Response project is a response to about 223,000 acres where spruce have died from beetle infestation on the forests, and 229,000 acres that have been affected by what’s called Sudden Aspen Decline, over a decade.
The Forest Service expects mortality in spruce stands “to continue at relatively high levels for several years to come,” according to the final environmental impact statement for the project. In 2009 the detection of new areas of aspen decline dropped considerably, but stands already affected continue to decline, and the Forest Service expects the aspen and spruce problems to be exacerbated in the future by climate change.
While the new forest treatment plan is intended to also address other goals like reducing safety hazards such as falling trees and increased wildfire danger, improving forest resiliency is a key goal. That includes trying to make the forest resilient in the face of a changing climate.
“In the climate change world, that’s called adaptation measures — basically trying to adapt the forest to a changing climate,” said Jim Worrall, a Forest Service forest pathologist who helped do the climate modeling.
He said quite a few outcomes of the management response project “could help adapt the forest to a warmer and potentially drier climate.”
For example, younger aspen are more resilient, as aspen under 40 years old showed by surviving the drought of the early 2000s, he said. So efforts to regenerate old aspen stands with new aspen would be beneficial. One of the strategies the Forest Service is considering is the use of “coppice cuts,” or essentially clear-cuts, of aging or diseased/dying aspen, to encourage regeneration. Prescribed fire is another contemplated approach.
Worrall said where logging of beetle-killed spruce occurs, that could provide an opportunity for regenerating those acres with more aspen, or other trees more tolerant of an expected hotter, drier climate, such as Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and blue spruce.
“I think at first it’s going to be baby steps because people are a little bit cautious, and reasonably so, about completely changing a (forest) cover type,” he said.
Where there’s spruce-fir forest, it might be crazy to start planting piñon-juniper now, even if models say it would be good piñon-juniper habitat by the end of the century, he said.
Samantha Staley, a forest planner working on the aspen-spruce project, said there are differing views about how to approach improving resiliency.
Some would say to just focus on what’s expected to be newly emerging, generally higher elevation habitat for aspen and spruce or targeting habitat that’s threatened, and say to forget about trying to save the species in habitat that’s expected to be lost.
Others would say it’s important in the short term to invest in areas expected to be lost, and either hope the models for climate impacts are wrong or that active management might prevent, or at least forestall, such shifts, she said.
A lot of other considerations will be given to where the agency pursues treatments. These can include things like where immediate habitat objectives for big game can be achieved, where existing roads provide access, and where there are opportunities for commercial timber sales through which companies would pay for the opportunity to log.
Currently there’s a commercial market locally for spruce logs, but not aspen. So where the Forest Service treats aspen, it would need to find funding, such as grants, to pay for it.
“Right now we don’t have any immediate aspen treatments proposed,” she said.
She said the level of interest in commercial treatment is pretty high, and probably the majority of work in the near future will involve salvage logging of spruce from beetle-killed areas in the far southeastern part of the forests near Gunnison, where the beetle epidemic has been the worst.
The project has identified a number of priority treatment areas across the forests, and each year the Forest Service will identify specific treatments it will be implementing, and provide opportunities for the public to visit sites and provide comment.
Enno Heuscher, a Cedaredge resident who’s a member of the Western Colorado Congress and graduated from Stanford University with a biology degree, serves as an environmental representative on the Public Lands Partnership, a broad-based stakeholder group that works in part on forests issues. He’s impressed by the awareness the Forest Service is showing regarding how climate change may affect local forest habitat.
He said environmental groups had encouraged the Forest Service earlier in the process to consider global warming and the need to pursue regeneration to keep the forest healthy. They also called for minimizing of extra roads for logging.
Heuscher said the final environmental impact statement cut road generation to half of what was envisioned in the draft statement.
The Forest Service also has agreed that any roads built for the project would be temporary, with reclamation occurring afterward. Staley said because of the expense involved, road-building probably would occur only for commercial treatments.
Having seen the evolution of the environmental impact statement from the beginning, Heuscher said, “I think the Forest Service has been receptive to reducing the impacts on the forest.”
Heuscher said a collaborative, adaptive management group is being formed to advise the Forest Service as it moves forward on the project.
“I think with the establishment of this adaptive management group we’ve got a good chance of really making this a successful project,” he said.
He said another benefit of it will be to provide local logging and timber mill jobs, which is important to the local economy.
Norm Birtcher, forester for Montrose Forest Products, said 83 people work at that plant, and another 100 or so as contractors doing logging and trucking work to supply it.
He said the forest project will allow for bringing in product to the plant and enable the government to receive a return on dead and down timber that it might otherwise have to pay to have treated.