How much for the whole house?
When we finished the basement in our house a few years ago, I was shocked to pay 86 cents apiece for 2x4 studs (I am old enough to remember when they were a quarter). That job required many studs so it added up quickly. Today in the big home improvement stores, they cost more than $3 each, and it’s hard to find enough straight ones to build anything.
The skyrocketing cost of lumber has dealt a serious blow to the affordability of housing for all Americans. Homes that sold for $100,000 just a few years ago today cost several times that, and high-priced lumber is one of the reasons. It is especially ironic in communities surrounded by giant forests of dead and dying trees, and threatened by the wildfires we see on the daily news.
Last week 7,000 firefighters were battling 13 major fires in California alone. Forest fires have burned 33,000 acres on Colorado’s Western Slope so far this year. One writer calculates that there are today 47 wildfires burning 661,000 acres across the country, and that is just on one particular day. That news is so common that it is routine now, but it shouldn’t be. It represents the continuing failure of the U.S. Forest Service to manage the lands with which it is entrusted, and the squandering, by our generation, of the greatest legacy of the conservation movement — our national forests.
In our home state of Colorado, there are now more than 3.4 million acres of dead trees, killed by the unnatural epidemic of beetles, about which the Forest Service has done almost nothing for 20 years. This year’s annual report of the Colorado State Forest Service estimates that there are 834 million dead trees in the state, an increase of 30 percent in the past seven years. One in every 14 standing trees in our state is dead. Giant swaths of dead trees are massive tinderboxes, stretching for hundreds of miles across the Rockies, from New Mexico to British Columbia. When ignited, these forests burn with an intensity that destroys everything in their wake, including endangered species and other wildlife, as well as homes, businesses, and other infrastructure.
The primary point so many people miss about these catastrophic fires is that they are not natural — far from it. They are the result of bad management, or no management at all. We know from tree ring analysis and other evidence that natural fires have always occurred at fairly frequent intervals, burning small trees, brush, and grasses, but leaving most of the large mature trees standing, often even healthier than before. That’s because when the forest is not overly dense, trees have sufficient water to produce their natural resin, which defends again the occasional pine beetle and other pests.
Starting in the 1990s, these forests began to be deprived of water because of the overgrowth of too many trees — often 1000 trees per acre where there should be 50. That left these natural defenses virtually non-existent, with two major results: the unchecked explosion of pine beetles that destroyed vast expanses of forests; and the resulting mass of weak and dead trees that left a landscape littered with fuel just waiting for a lightning strike or an errant cigarette. We see the result now, in catastrophic wildfires, and in the price of forest products and homes.
The reason for the forests’ overgrowth is not complicated. In short, logging became unpopular a generation or so ago, and the Forest Service all but stopped allowing it on the national forests. The agency still puts out most fires, but today sells only a tenth or so of the lumber it sold 30 years ago. Thus, the timber program no longer helps thin the forests. Environmentally conscious citizens often forget a central truth about forests — plants either grow or die. Stopping all activity in the forests will not preserve them for all time, like a snapshot. In fact, for a forest, neglect is a death sentence.
All the plants in the forests continue to grow while we look the other way, not just the large old trees we all love, but also the weeds, brush, and small trees that create fuel. That inevitably dooms the large old trees, too. Today our national forests produce at least twice as much new growth as managers remove every year, so the situation worsens every year.
Next week: what some Congressmen propose to do about it, and how much 2x4s will cost by the time they get around to it.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.