Eco-Logging: An oxymoron?

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Staff Writer

It took a catastrophic wildfire season last summer to get the country to consider an issue that Brian Farris has been talking about for more than 20 years.

Farris – who operates a small logging company with his dad, Doug – is a champion of timber sales as a way to control beetle infestations, reduce the risk of wildfires and even keep mountain economies slightly more diverse.

Championing that cause hasn’t been easy. Logging suffers a serious lack of understanding and respect from the public. It automatically gets lumped in with mining and cattle grazing as environmentally toxic.

But Farris makes a convincing case that logging doesn’t always deserve a black eye. If it is done correctly, he said, it can build healthier and more diversely aged forests.

That argument is taking hold. The U.S. Congress is currently debating the pros and cons of a plan to increase the number of logging projects on public land and streamline the review process used by the U.S. Forest Service.

Clearing red tape and red zones

That plan, known as the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, was introduced by Rep. Scott McInnis, a Republican from Grand Junction. It passed the U.S. House and is awaiting debate in the Senate.

The concept is earning bipartisan support, although not everyone supports McInnis’ bill. Few legislators disagree with the idea that more effort must be made to thin timber in so-called red zones, where forests abut communities. It’s hard to argue with that reasoning after last year’s wildfires burned 6 million acres and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to control.

McInnis’ bill would target the red zones and allow logging where beetles are killing trees. Environmentalists are fighting to keep roadless areas off-limits. They fear McInnis and the Bush administration may simply be handing the logging industry carte blanche to go where it wants.

Despite his roots, Farris is as weary of the big logging companies as he is of some environmentalists. He believes the debate of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act will lead to beneficial action, as long as it doesn’t swing the pendulum too far in favor of the timber industry.

It is the small logging companies, like those that once dotted the Roaring Fork Valley and proliferated on the Western Slope, and their performance that he fiercely defends.

“Everybody equates logging with these massive clear-cuts on the West Coast,” said Farris. But he said there are numerous examples in the White River National Forest where logging projects resulted in better conditions. He uses Chapman Campground in the Fryingpan River Valley as a prime example.

A model project

Farris helped his dad on a project there 20 years ago, right about the time he graduated from Aspen High School. The Forest Service wanted to stop the spread of a beetle infestation affecting lodgepole pine and Douglas fir.

Details of the job are a little murky now, but Farris recalls that enough trees were felled to send a little less than 100 truckloads of logs to the mill.

The project was a selective cut rather than a clear-cut. The Forest Service staked out a boundary and marked what trees could be chopped.

Farris is proud to lead a reporter through that section of forest. Two decades after the work was completed, there is an obvious difference in the woods where the work was completed and the adjacent, untouched section.

Where the timber was cut, multiple generations of trees exist, from towering lodgepoles to small saplings. Openings in the forest canopy have allowed younger trees to grow, and less competition for water has promoted faster growth. The areas have an open parklike feel.

Where the ground was tilled when logs were loaded on a skid and hauled out, saplings have proliferated like row crops. The thinning also allowed more growth of middle-aged trees between 10 and 20 feet high.

Only a few piles of cut timber, known as slash, are scattered around the hillside site. Stumps were cut low to the ground, less than 12 inches whenever possible. Most of those stumps are now crumbling.

The path they cut for access to the site has been converted into a popular interpretative trail, which loops around a hillside between Chapman Reservoir and the group campsite.

Farris said they went to great pains to complete a clean project since it was located within a campground. And he acknowledged that logging makes a mess.

“Logging, when it’s first done, it looks rough,” he said. Slash is inevitable and the ground is rubbed bare where logs are skidded out. But give it two years or so, he said, and it’s hard to tell that logging occurred there.

A nearby clear-cut that the Farrises undertook on Burnt Mountain in the Fryingpan drainage around the same time as the Chapman project has also filled in well. Small- and middle-sized trees have grown in thickly where the tall lodgepole were taken out.

On both projects, the parklike logged areas stand in stark contrast to the untouched forests alongside.

On the western half of the same hillside where the Chapman project occurred, the untouched part of the forest is densely packed and the trees are generally the same age. Little sunlight reaches the forest floor, and competition for light and water is killing off a fair number of trees.

A handful of trees have small piles of sap oozing out along the length of the trunk. These are spots where beetles have burrowed in and laid eggs. When the larvae hatch, the beetles will chew a path further along the trunks. This is not an isolated problem.

When the Forest Service released a management plan designed to guide actions in the White River National Forest for the next 10 years, a study showed that most lodgepole stands are between 90 and 130 years old. It identified the Fryingpan Valley’s older trees as especially susceptible to beetles and a disease called dwarf mistletoe.

Timber sales are designated as a way to improve the health and diversity of the 2.3 million-acre forest. The annual timber harvest anticipated over the next decade in the forest plan would be about 80 percent of the annual harvest since the end of World War II.

However, a recent court decision that protects roadless areas will reduce the area where timber sales can be held from 70,000 to 10,000 acres, according to Sopris District Ranger Bill Westbrook.

The Forest Service just put one project out to bid. It will allow more than 3.5 million board feet to be harvested from the Crooked Creek area, along the gravel road that runs between the Fryingpan Valley and the town of Eagle. A board foot is 1 square foot of wood that is 1 inch thick. A three-bedroom, two-bath house of 2,000 square feet typically requires 15,000 board feet, according to the Forest Service.

Farris said the Crooked Creek project is probably too big for his company. Bonds equal to 10 percent of a logger’s bid must be posted to ensure proper cleanup. That makes everything but the smallest jobs inaccessible for most small loggers. If roadwork is required for a job, the expense is even more prohibitive.

Looking ahead

Farris, 38, is realistic about the future of the business. His kids probably won’t get the opportunities to do what he did.

He has been logging with his dad for as long as he can remember: first as a kid helping with the family business, then as an adult helping when he could between his other jobs, and finally as a partner.

He said, tongue in cheek, that he rues the day his dad got him interested in logging. Now it’s in his blood even though he won’t make a fortune.

“If it wasn’t so enjoyable I’d probably quit and go somewhere else,” said Farris. But it’s hard to beat a job where you work in the outdoors and set a schedule to match your needs.

Even without government regulations and environmental opposition, the logging business would still be in decline in Colorado. Lumber from Canada, Asia and South America gets sold in the United States at prices cheaper than local loggers and mills can produce it.

Farris said the only sizable mill left that will buy his products is located in Montrose, three hours from Carbondale on paved roads, and eons away for trucks loaded with logs from secluded mountain projects.

Small sawmills once abounded in areas like Lenado, Thomasville and even Aspen. But one of the last in the valley disappeared last year when George Strong moved his operation to Rifle.

Farris doesn’t really consider his work logging anymore, not in the sense of an operation where trees are harvested and sent to a mill to be made into lumber or paper products. What he does now, he said, is mostly clear trees and brush from utility easements and roadways, and remove hazardous fuels from private property.

“Anybody who’s still trying to do this has got to be adaptable,” he said.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is


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