Vail turns to logging operations to prevent forest fires, beetles
November 19, 2005
VAIL – The massive machine wrapped its metal arms around the trunk of the dead tree and in one swift move, cleanly ripped it from the ground. Turning into a clearing, it rotated the log and fed it through another part of the multifunctional machine, stripping it of limbs and leaves. The machine then turned again and neatly added the log to a growing pile.Tom Olden, owner of Pine Martin Logging, recently wielded this tract feller processor during a logging operation on Vail Mountain that cut about 600 trees around the top of Born Free Express Lift, also known as Chair 8. “We have a pristine ski area,” said Jen Brown, spokeswoman for Vail Mountain, “and we did it to protect our assets along the gondola. It was related to the pine beetle and working on the fire protection along that area.”As pine beetles turn Colorado forests into a rusty shade of red, Pine Martin Logging was hired to remove the trees from about 10 acres of U.S. Forest Service land over two weeks. “It was more for infrastructure and fire mitigation, not really for forest health,” Olden said.
The U.S. Forest Service backed the project, saying the stretch along Vail Mountain’s gondola has been severely attacked by beetles. Removing the trees was partly to remove the unsightly red trees but also for the safety of skiers as trees become weak and fall more easily when they die.”It’s an important part of managing the ski area, removing the dead trees,” said Cal Wettstein, the district forest ranger in Eagle County. Although Brown said she wasn’t sure if there would be other logging projects in the future, Wettstein said there will be many more in the next few years.While Wettstein seemed eager to do more mitigation, Olden said the Forest Service’s environmental regulations are keeping loggers from doing a job that needs to get done – cutting more trees to protect the community.”The Forest Service won’t let us log where people can see us,” Olden said. “Personally, I’d like to log right by I-70 – show people what can be done.”We aren’t a bunch of scumbags, we do a good job,” Olden said. “We do leave a footprint. But you can’t look at it today. You’ve got to look down the road.”Some environmental groups – such as the Unified Forest Defense Campaign, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and American Lands Alliance – maintain Mother Nature should take its course even if it means fire. Olden said fire shouldn’t even be an option in Vail. “Burning is good, it just has to be in perspective,” Olden said. “Natural is fine, but if we were to let that happen, it would devastate our economy.”
Steve Holmer, spokesman for the Unified Forest Defense Campaign, said research has shown logging dead or dying trees damages streams and wildlife habitat while wasting money. Logging may even increase fire risk, he said. While he admitted it may seem counterintuitive, when trees are logged, the limbs are often left behind while only the logs are extracted. The debris left behind becomes prime burning material. Wettstein maintained the slash from this project will be “treated” in some way, whether it’s removing it or scattering around the forest to lessen the fire hazard. But Holmer also said cutting a chunk out of a forest opens it up to more sun and wind, causing the remaining trees to dry out and become more vulnerable to fire. Wettstein said the Forest Service will let nature take its course on hundreds of thousands of acres. “There are lots of areas where we will not address these dead trees, but we must remove the dead trees around the community areas,” Wettstein said. “We don’t get a lot of argument from the environmental groups when we stay near to the community.” When the inevitable fire tears through the forest, Olden said, it will be imperative to log the burned trees to generate new life. Working in the aftermath of 2002’s Hayman Fire, Olden helped log seven-tenths of 1 percent of the trees that burned. “Areas that were logged, one season later had re-growth,” Olden said. “It helped water quality and erosion.”But environmental watchdog groups are saying logging after a fire is terribly detrimental. “Logging after a fire is the worst kind of logging,” Holmer said. “The science has come out very clearly that logging after fire creates a lot of damage. It hurts soil quality and diminishes the number of trees that will re-grow.”