Should aspens replace lodgepole in local forests?

John LaConte
Vail Daily
A child holds an aspen seedling at a tree planting event in Breckenridge on Wednesday. The Nature Conservancy and Summit County Open Space are attempting to replace lodgepole with aspen near Breckenridge in a first-of-its-kind experiment.
John LaConte |

In Vail, when lodgepole pines were cut to create a wildfire buffer zone between neighborhoods and the forest, several kinds of trees and plants repopulated the area in the years that followed.

In Breckenridge, however, not many tree species other than lodgepole are growing back in the zones that have been clear cut.

Hoping to see a different kind of vegetation rise from a former pine forest in town, the environmental collaboration group The Nature Conservancy visited Breckenridge on Wednesday with 1,200 aspen seedlings and a team of workers.

The area of their focus is the Barney Ford Open Space near homes in Breckenridge’s Baldy Ridge Estates, the so-called wildland-urban interface where forest meets development. But the work could tell high-elevation communities throughout the West if replacing conifer forests with aspen groves is a viable strategy for defending property in interface zones.

“This project is the first of its kind, it’s a first-ever trial,” said Catherine Schloegel, Watershed Forest Manager for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado.

The Nature Conservancy, along with workers from Summit County government, planted aspen seedlings Wednesday in areas where lodgepole trees had been removed, and over the next few years, the group will return to see if those aspen trees are growing.

The aspen study has been funded by a grant through Vail Resorts’ 1% for the Forests initiative, a program in which Vail Resorts contributes 1% of all summer lift tickets and activity revenue to fund forest restoration projects on national forests lands. The project also received in-kind support from Summit County Open Space & Trails and Town of Breckenridge Open Space.

The U.S. Forest Service, over the past 10 to 15 years, has clear cut lodgepole pines from thousands of acres of land in Eagle County and Summit County in the name of wildfire fuels reduction.

In the forest above Dillon Reservoir, fuels reduction treatments have been implemented on more than 10,000 acres, with almost 60% of those efforts coming in the form of clear-cuts to lodgepole pine, according to figures released by The Nature Conservancy. On some of those hillsides, a brown and barren landscape can now be seen where evergreens once thrived.

Looking to one of those areas, “It would sure be nice if we could get some different color in there,” said Dan Osborn, who works in the Community Development Department for Summit County “Other than dead timber and/or clear cut areas.”

Osborn helped plant dozens of aspens on Wednesday, one of several Summit County employees who enjoyed a day out in the field.

“People from the planning department, the weed department, the building department, so a whole lot of our community development folks,” said Brian Lorch, the director of Summit County Open Space and Trails, of the county employees working from the Barney Ford Open Space on Wednesday. “This has been a good opportunity to get people out, working together.”

Lorch said The Nature Conservancy approached Summit County Open Space with the idea to undertake the aspen planting project.

“We were very intrigued with the idea of how can we help establish aspens in Summit County,” Lorch said. “One of the issues we see is that as we do the buffers around our communities for wildfire purposes, most of what’s growing back is the same lodgepole thicket that we had before. So in a short period of time, 20 years or so, we’ll have the same issues with fire concerns as we had prior to the cutting. We’ve done some places where we’ve thinned things in order to try to avoid having such a fuels load, but really aspens, and having a more diverse forest, is a much better plan in the long run.”

Debate over fuels reduction

The Nature Conservancy’s aspens, though, have their own problems.

It’s true that aspens are less flammable than pine trees. And trying to populate former lodgepole zones with aspens can be a worthwhile cause, says forest ecologist Thomas Veblen with the University of Colorado.

“If the financial resources are available to spend a lot of money on forest management, that’s a worthy goal, to increase the area of aspen, and that’s likely to decrease the spread of fires in the future,” Veblen said.

But The Nature Conservancy’s studies on fire fuels reduction, which includes examining aspen repopulation in areas clear cut of lodgepole pine, may end up helping, most of all, The Nature Conservancy, Veblen says.

“They have a structure of people and resources that can do fire mitigation, they’ve got to keep it funded, so there’s a self interest there,” Veblen said. “They have contracts with the Forest Service to do a lot of forest management, so The Nature Conservancy, from that perspective, has a self interest in promoting fuels reduction.”

Eric Washburn, a fifth-generation Coloradan who has a masters degree from the Yale School of Forestry, has been watching much of the debate over fire fuels reduction from the sidelines as the current campaign manager for the wolf reintroduction effort in Colorado. Four years ago, Washburn completed a fellowship studying forest health at the Harvard University Center for the Environment. He says there’s a lack of public trust in fuels reduction efforts.

“People have used quote-unquote forest health as just an excuse to go in and log, because the logging is economically attractive, and I think that has poisoned this debate, to some extent,” Washburn said. “I think what needs to be driving forest policy is what’s good for the fire ecology, what’s good for the wildlife habitat ecology, and less ‘let’s just manage forests because we can make a buck off of it.’”

University of Montana fire ecologist Richard L. Hutto is skeptical of The Nature Conservancy’s efforts.

“I don’t see wholesale conversion of something to something else in the name of fire safety,” he said. “The thing that determines fire behavior and whether it’s going to get crazy is temperature, humidity and wind, not fuels.”

Fire ecologist William L. Baker from the University of Wyoming, says even if community members are able to get the aspens to grow, they may still have problems if a fire comes through, especially during the high temperature, low humidity, high wind conditions that we’re seeing more frequently as a result of climate change.

Aspens will work as a crown fire break where there’s enough moisture to keep the aspen moist, in which case “the fire might hit the ground upon reaching the aspen from a mixed aspen-lodgepole stand further away,” Baker writes. “We do see this in many fires, but aspen definitely can also burn in a running crown fire too.”

The money and time would be wiser spent adapting the community, rather than the forest, Baker said in an email.

“At this point, with there being little question that crown fires are likely to increase in the future, it’d be most wise for the community to work with Fire Adapted Colorado, which seeks to help communities prepare to completely survive a fire burning into or close to the community through a variety of means,” Baker said in an email.

Fire Adapted Colorado board member Paul Cada said while it’s important to look at the big picture, getting a community fire-ready often involves drilling down to the micro-level and looking at what can be done to fire-proof the developed areas in the wildland-urban interface.

“There are very many different scales when it comes to the wildfire environment,” Cada said. “It’s really important to understand the individual community, really all the way down to the individual property owner.”

Cada said it’s also important to understand that there is a need for fire in our natural environment.

“As a group, our goal is to make the state of Colorado as prepared as possible, knowing that wildfire is an inevitable part of our ecosystem,” Cada said. “Our mission is to make sure that our communities are prepared. Local communities know what they need best, what we want to do at Fire Adapted Colorado is give the local communities the tools that they need to be successful.”

‘Need for scientifically backed data’

Cada is also the wildland fire specialist for the town of Vail. He says the reason Vail had more luck with diversity among regrowing trees following its pine logging projects may have something to do with the way the lodgepole trees were removed.

“In Summit County, a lot of what was cut was done with heavy logging equipment on the ground, because it’s generally flatter and easier to access than what we have around here in Vail,” Cada said. “It disturbs the soil a little bit and actually provides a really good environment for lodgepole to regenerate. Here in Vail, because of the steep slopes and the limited access, we had people with chainsaws cut down the trees, and then we flew them out with a helicopter, so there was very little disturbance to the ground.”

Cada said in addition to pine, spruce, aspen and even some willow, a lot of grass repopulated the areas from which the lodgepole had been removed in Vail.

“For the most part, they’ve maintained an open meadow look, which actually has a lot of benefits besides just wildfire, including food for wildlife,” Cada said.

In an area where lodgepole has been logged with little disturbance to the ground, “the grass takes over, and ironically grass does a really good job of outcompeting the little baby pine trees,” Cada said. “And so, in that situation, we didn’t get a whole lot of pine trees, but that was also one of the intended outcomes.”

Cada said The Nature Conservancy’s aspen study could help the natural resource managers of tomorrow make more informed decisions.

“There is a lot of need for scientifically-backed data, for sure, when it comes to natural resource management,” Cada said.

Schloegel said in addition to studying the trees themselves, The Nature Conservancy will also look at the fencing surrounding the aspen seedlings as part of their research.

“We have built an 8-foot tall fence around the site to keep out the moose, elk and deer — aspen is one of their favorite foods,” Schloegel said. “Inside that fence is snow fence, and while it’s not traditional to see a snow fence that’s not along highways, this snow fence is serving a special purpose — it’s capturing snow and creating a moisture bank. We think those are the conditions, moist soils, that aspen need most to survive and thrive.”

Schloegel said The Nature Conservancy will be using a science-based approach to the research.

“We’ll be coming back here over the next several years to understand how this snow fence functions, what is the browsing pressure, and how it affects things like soil moisture,” Schloegel said.