Jefferson County Finds Itself Up a Tree Over Controversial Forest-Thinning Practices

These trees in Elk Meadow Park were cut down at the direction of Jefferson County Open Space.
These trees in Elk Meadow Park were cut down at the direction of Jefferson County Open Space. Josh Schlossberg
In early February, Josh Schlossberg was cross-country skiing in Elk Meadow Park near Evergreen when he came across a pile of trees that had been cut down. He started counting the rings and discovered that some were over 100 years old.

Schlossberg, an Evergreen resident and Colorado steering committee member for Eco-Integrity Alliance, often recreates in the mountain park, which is managed by Jefferson County Open Space. He was alarmed by his find, especially because a sign notified him that the trees had been cut down by JCOS, and he knows that the county’s Forest Health Plan says it wants to “promote larger diameter and fire-resistant trees such as ponderosa pine” as part of its overall management strategy.

Schlossberg subsequently learned that there hadn’t been any public meetings about the plan, and says that when he tried to bring the issue to the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners, the commissioners either didn’t respond or denied that 100-year-old trees were being cut.

“That's the scariest part,” Schlossberg says.

Jefferson County’s plan for Elk Meadow Park directs approximately 240 acres of ponderosa pine forests to be “treated” by 2024, starting with 50 acres in the area Schlossberg came across that sit close to Highway 74.

"Treating" is a term for thinning forests by cutting down trees. Steve Germaine, natural resources supervisor for Jeffco Open Space, says the department worked with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University to model wildfire risk in western Jefferson County, with particular emphasis on human-built structures.

“The product that they gave us was a computer map in a geographic information system that prioritized where we had forest stands that were at high risk of wildfire [and] were in close proximity to places where people lived, or where people worked, or where there were built assets that were valuable to people,” Germaine says. “Elk Meadow happens to be one of those places.”

The number of ponderosa pines there is high, and Germaine says JCOS wanted to get to the forest before a fire did.

According to an infographic about forest types and fire behaviors developed by the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute (a congressionally authorized project), “Some forest types, such as ponderosa pine mixed conifer, have a fire regime that historically experienced frequent (i.e., 7-50 yr fire return interval), low-to-moderate severity fires (i.e., fires that don’t kill most trees, but may result in small patches of dead trees), that varied in size.”

Germaine says the goal is to be sure that if a fire happens in the area, it will stay at that low-to-moderate severity by returning forests to the way they were before European intervention.

“Prior to settlement by European settlers, natural fires maintained ponderosa pine forests in an open savanna-like structural composition, with light grasses and very light seedling and sapling regeneration in the understory,” he explains.

Natural fires would burn those grasses and seedlings, but because humans have suppressed fire for the past century, that process hasn’t happened. As JCOS implements forest-thinning projects, it tries to cut younger trees out of areas that have more trees per acre than what it estimates would have been there without historic fire suppression.

Not all forests fit that mold, though, including those populated by ponderosa pines, points out Chad Hanson, practicing ecologist and director of the John Muir Project, which works to improve ecological management of public forests.

“The science strongly contradicts that narrative,” he says. “This is true for forests all across the West. This is true in the Colorado Front Range. … Everywhere scientists have looked at this, we've found the same thing: that historical forests were much denser overall than the U.S. Forest Service, or some state agencies that are involved in logging, have told the public they were.”

There were some areas that were more open and park-like, but more areas were dense, with hundreds or thousands of trees per acre.

In fact, the very idea that forests need to be managed extensively is in question. In Hanson’s book Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate, he makes the case that a mix of fire severity, dead trees, snag habitat and variety of tree density is all part of a healthy forest. “You need that mix,” he says.

In a 2022 paper published in Biological Conservation that Hanson helped author, he and his fellow researchers argue for a more hands-off management approach that doesn’t involve cutting down trees.

“Active management through logging cannot restore the extensive deficiency of large, old trees from past agency management,” the paper says. “Passive management may be able to do this restoration at low cost over very large areas.”

Schlossberg’s concerns come not only from the lack of scientific considerations in the forest-thinning plan, but also from the age of some of the downed trees. According to Germaine, the department doesn’t remove trees that are technically considered “old growth.” Those trees provide habitat for small mammals and birds and, if they are over 150 years old, were likely around before European intervention in American forests. It’s important to eliminate younger trees to keep the forest healthy, he contends.

“We don't get a lot of water here on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, so when those trees are too crowded, they're competing,” Germaine says.

According to Brett Wolk, assistant director of CSU's Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, ponderosa pine tree systems take centuries to develop, and the trees can live for 500 years.

Schlossberg still takes issue with the idea that cutting down trees that have lived for a century is the answer, especially when it comes to the ponderosa pine.

“Why is it that ponderosa pine can grow that old?” he asks. “The answer is because they're fire-resistant trees.”
click to enlarge
Some of the trees that have been cut down in Jeffco are clearly a hundred or more years old.
Josh Schlossberg
Wolk notes that in Colorado, there aren’t many trees over 150 years old, however, because people cut them down for use in railroads and mining as the area developed, another problem created by European settlers. People need to learn to co-exist with fire, and thinning forests is part of that co-existence, Wolk adds, so behavior around forests needs to change to protect people.

“It’s not a yes or no whether we want it or not,” he says. “The goal is not to go back to 1850 and just pretend. There's lots of things we can learn from the past, like the evolutionary history of the trees and natural strategies to deal with fire trends and regrowth after fires.”

A 2018 United States Department of Agriculture "Science You Can Use" bulletin states that pushing forests back toward past conditions will make them more resilient. Hanson points out the irony that, according to those who advocate for forest-thinning, it has been a mistake to prevent fires to the extent that humans have over the years, yet we're still using fire suppression to justify cutting down trees.

Germaine offers the idea that JCOS needs to thin forests to protect residents in places like Evergreen and Conifer, but many experts disagree that forest-thinning is the best way to protect people from fires. For example, more than 200 scientists — including Hanson — sent a letter to Congress in 2020 asking legislators to oppose forest-thinning proposals.

“The notion that removing trees from the forest will curb fire has been soundly discredited,” Hanson says. “Wildfires are driven mostly by weather and climate, and therefore also by climate change. In drought years, you get the ignition, and you get hot, dry, windy conditions. Those are conditions for fires. It's not mainly about forest density.”

In forest fires, trees like the ponderosa pine are rarely consumed; removing them doesn’t change fire intensity because they don’t contribute combustible materials. A study of California forest fires showed that even large wildfires consumed only about 2 percent of tree biomass.

In Hanson’s book, he calls this mode of fire suppression a myth, debunking it with studies done by himself and others.

“What we find is that when you remove trees from the forest through logging operations, including logging under the guise of thinning or fuel reduction, it actually changes the microclimate of the forest,” he says. “You reduce the cooling shade of the forest canopy cover. You allow more sunlight and more sun exposure to reach the forest floor. The forest floor gets drier and hotter.”

Winds can then blow through forests more quickly, and fire can spread faster. A 2012 investigation found that during the Fourmile Canyon Fire in Boulder County, thinned forests sometimes burned more than non-thinned areas nearby.

“In some cases, treated stands appeared to burn more intensely than adjacent untreated stands, perhaps because of additional surface fuels present as a result of the thinning and higher wind speeds that can occur in open forests compared to those with denser canopies,” the paper says.

Instead of thinning, research proposes "home hardening" as a better way to protect homes from fire. Home hardening involves removing dry grass or accumulations of twigs and dry leaves in the area within 100 feet of homes. It also involves building homes to be more fireproof by using rain gutter guards, ember-proof vents and metal roofing.

Advocates like Schlossberg say that would be a better use of funds than cutting down trees.

“At best, this is a bunch of busy work that distracts from the things that we should actually be doing, and gives people a false sense of security,” he says.

However, Germaine insists that those who reject the mode of fire management employed by JCOS and other forest management agencies are the ones who don’t represent the best interests of residents who live in forests.

“Possibly a majority of the residents in western Jefferson County understand a couple of things,” he says. “They know what a wildfire catastrophe looks like. … They don't want Evergreen and Conifer to look like that, and they know that there's a chance that they could if we don't thin those forests.”

Some, he says, tell JCOS that they love the forest as it is, don’t want it to be thinned, and are willing to accept the risk of wildfire if it’s left alone. However, he adds, those people are in the minority.

“There's a minority who either don't understand or would rather take a risk,” he says. “Unfortunately, there's an extremely slim minority who have chosen to be radical and antagonistic. … It's really sad that there's a group that, for purposes that are really hard to understand, are being so irresponsible and factually inaccurate.”

Hanson says that sort of language is used to undermine what the science says but what the forest management industry doesn’t want to accept.

“They cannot go toe-to-toe with us on the scientific evidence,” he says. “Every time they try, they lose, so now, in desperation, they're hitting below the belt, and they're going personal and engaging in character assassination.”

Hanson believes that the logging industry relies on people buying into a positive narrative around cutting down trees, so it lobbies Congress to support forest-thinning management to keep that narrative alive. That lobbying trickles down to local forest management, he adds.

Wolk says that’s not the case: It’s simply that people have different goals as they approach forest management.

“A lot of the controversy just comes from talking across different objectives,” he says. “If people say, ‘My objective is homes don’t burn down,’ there's no reason to cut down tree. We should just harden all the homes. That sort of overlooks other objectives like, if you reduce the intensity of a fire by thinning out trees, more trees are more likely to survive, and that helps build resilience in the system.”

Forest management can have many objectives, and people approach it with different values, he concludes. But to Scholssberg, the point is that public lands, and old trees, shouldn’t be sacrificed for reasons that aren’t fully supported by science.

“I don't cry when I see logging, you know, but at the same time a part of me was like, man, this was a special place,” he says of Elk Meadow. “They're using these public parks as the sacrifice zones. … I'm just seeing these random hack jobs that don't even make any sense.”

As he sees it, saving the forest by removing trees just doesn’t add up.
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire

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