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After beetles, what’s next for Summit County’s forests?

Some lodgepole areas are showing signs of re-growth, but absence of fire and reforestation could slow forest regeneration

Giant piles of logs stacked near Swan Mountain Road have yet to be moved to a sawmill or chipping facility. I wonder if the logging contract issued by the Forest Service includes a deadline for removing the timber?

SUMMIT COUNTY — While mountain pine beetles continue to spread in some parts of Summit County, other areas are already on their way to recovery. Given the uncertainties of climate change and continued human disturbance in local forest ecosystem — not to mention the absence of aggressive reforestation efforts on any meaningful scale — it’s not exactly clear what comes next.

A few days ago as I drove over Swan Mountain Road between Breckenridge and Keystone, I noticed a distinct sheen of green sprouting between the ragged lodgepole pine stumps. So early Saturday morning, I wandered out into the clear-cut areas along the road to see what’s happening.

See the rest of the photo essay after the break …

Higher up on the slopes of the Swan Mountain clearcut, green grass and wildflowers are starting to sprout among the stumps, logs and woodchips.

The main road for logging access was placed right in the wettest part of the area, at the base of the slope. There are a few wetland-type plants growing in the level field, but it doesn't look like a true wetlands. But it is a moist sagebrush-type habitat, and I'm not sure why the Forest Service chose to locate the road in this spot. It could easily have been placed a bit closer to Swan Mountain Road, or closer to the base of the clear-cut slope, where the terrain is not quite so damp. In this location, the ruts are 18 to 24 inches deep in some areas. As a project approved under a streamlined review authorized by the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, some of the details probably didn't get the scrutiny they should have. Fortunately, there is no open or running water nearby, so impacts from the poorly placed road will be minimal once the road has been reclaimed.

I wandered on the hillside for a couple of hours, but couldn't find a single lodgepole or aspen seedling anywhere. Summit County residents need to tune in each time the Forest Service proposes a so-called forest health project and make sure that the plans include a strong restoration component.

A small clump of Penstemon gains a foothold in a heavily logged beetle-kill area along Swan Mountain Road.

Big piles of slash remain in some areas of the Swan Mountain clearcut. In the areas with heavy slash, there is very little sign of re-growth. I'm not a forestry expert, but it seems like a low-level controlled burn could help stimulate regeneration — if it could be executed safely.

Somebody has been getting creative with the leftover 'doghair' lodgepole logs, trying out a unique fence construction technique. Healthy forbs are sprouting in some of the areas in the clearcut. With no sign of new trees sprouting yet on the southeast facing slope, it seems possible this area may be converted to an open grassland, or maybe into a sagebrush habitat.

Wild Wood's roses are sprounting in many spots on the Swan Mountain clearcut, showing how quickly brush-type habitat can establish itself after a major disturbance.

More signs of re-growth in the Swan Mountain clearcut. There's enough vegetation on the hillside now to help reduce erosion during heavy summer rains.

Forest diversity? A lone blue spruce grows near the main logging road at the base of the Swan Mountain clearcut.

A branch detail from the single blue spruce growing in the Swan Mountain clearcut area.

Good regrowth, including columbines, along the base of the Swan Mountain clearcut, but this area will experience renewed disturbance when trucks come in to haul off the logs. It's a shame that part of the project wasn't completed right after the trees were cut. Now the impacts will extend into a second year.

Looking up from the base of the clearcut, where there is good re-growth along a spur road leading into the logging area.

Logs upon logs upon logs ...

Signs of hope? A single Douglas-fir grows at the base of the clearcut area along Swan Mountain Road. It'll be interesting to watch the area during the next few years to see how it regenerates.

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7 Responses

  1. What a fantastic photo essay that raises great examples of why a comprehensive reforestation approach is needed as we clear beetle-kill. Perfect example of independent journalism!

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  3. For those that remember the last infestation of pine beetle in the early 80’s, they can tell you the lodgepole pine and aspen will soon be growing on the now bare slopes. Just look up at Ptarmigan (Government Small Tracts) and Eagles Nest/Three Peaks. These areas were hard hit, but are growing back nicely. Also, look at the east side of I-70 between Frisco and Silverthorne. That area was completely clear cut in the early 80’s. Mother nature may not be fast, but she will get the job done….

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  6. Very good photo essay.
    Not to worry about the ruts left in the wet area, they will regrow back a lot quicker than if they were in a dry area.
    Slash left will protect slopes from wind and water erosion.
    I am not familiar with the areas photographed, but would venture to say it’s not a perfect world.
    Without the logging it might take decades to get to this point naturally.
    A fire could leave the potential for wide spread erosion.

    Joe

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. My main issue with this clearcut is that it’s about as far as you can get from a town in Summit County, yet it was done as WUI treatment … apparently because there is campground nearby.

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