Logging in Jefferson County (CO) for Fire Mitigation Stokes Anger Among Residents

Environmental activist Josh Schlossberg stands in Elk Meadow Park with recently harvested trees which were felled as part of a fire management plan on the Jefferson County Open Space near Evergreen on Feb. 28, 2023. Schlossberg is concerned that Jefferson County’s mitigation plan in the open space parks is cutting old growth trees — an important part of the ecosystem — as part of its fire mitigation plan. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

John Aguilar – The Denver Post
EVERGREEN — Hundreds of freshly cut ponderosa logs lay stacked in rows in Elk Meadow Park, some measuring several feet in diameter — and more than a century old. Not far away, wood chips and slash litter a clearing where trees once stood.

“My initial reaction was complete shock and horror,” said Theresa Fox, an Evergreen resident who regularly hikes the open space properties that dot the Jefferson County high country. “The mature straight trees were all logged and only scrub trees with no value for logging were left.”

Eleven miles from Elk Meadow is Flying J Ranch Park, which Fox said she can no longer visit because she is “so sickened by the total devastation the logging has brought.”

An effort to halt the logging has gathered more than 500 signatures on a change.org website.

What’s upsetting Fox and other residents in the foothills is what Jefferson County calls wildfire mitigation, alongside a larger effort to maintain forest health in a drying climate. The county’s natural resources supervisor, Steve Germaine, said climate change is making wildfires a year-round hazard and Jefferson County can’t ignore it.

It doesn’t help, he said, that decades of fire suppression have helped make forests more combustible.

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“On most days of the year, if you thin trees and keep surface fuels in check, fire danger will primarily be restricted to the ground, where emergency responders have a better chance of keeping it under control,” he said. “Fire didn’t thin them naturally and we now have an unhealthy number of trees, so we are doing our best with mechanical thinning treatments to mimic natural fire.”

Aside from Elk Meadow and Flying J Ranch, Jefferson County has been felling trees in Meyer Ranch Park and Reynolds Park.
“We just began a thinning project at White Ranch Park and have plans to thin stands in other parks, especially in areas near neighborhoods, schools and other places where human safety is a priority,” Germaine said.

The county’s efforts are occurring against the backdrop of a 10-year initiative by the U.S. Forest Service to prevent wildfire catastrophes by treating — defined as prescribed burns or thinning — up to 50 million acres. Federal planners have prioritized forests around urban areas including Colorado’s Front Range, from Fort Collins to Pueblo, designating the 3.5 million-acre area as one of the West’s most imperiled “high-risk fire sheds.”

Evergreen resident JoAnn Hackos, who also serves as a board member with the Evergreen Audubon chapter, said Jefferson County is targeting too many mature trees.

“I’ve seen truckloads of large, old-growth trees being driven away from our neighborhood parks,” Hackos said. “There is lots of money to be made in selling big trees, but it irreparably damages the forest.”

The county, she said, is using a technique called mastication, which essentially chops up treated areas into mulch. Hackos said the practice disrupts the soil and damages roots.

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“We know that natural fires in the past thinned the forest and led to trees of different varieties and densities,” she said. “We need to keep a forest that is varied in age, variety and density to prevent wildfires.”

Chad Hanson, forest and fire ecologist with the John Muir Project in Big Bear Lake, Calif., said Jefferson County “is doing everything wrong.”

“Removing mature trees increases wildfire spread and severity,” he said. “When they do these logging projects under the guise of thinning, that reduces the cooling shade of the canopy. Denser forests do not burn more intensely.”

By removing big trees, Hanson said, more ground is exposed to Colorado’s generous sunshine, with desiccation — or drying — of grasses and ground cover the result. And the buffering effect on the wind that trees provide is reduced.

It was bone-dry grasslands — along with fierce winds — that fueled the Marshall fire in 2021, whipping flames from the fire’s point of origin along Colorado 93 all the way into Superior and Louisville, where more than 1,000 homes were destroyed and two people died.

“Weather and climate are dominant (in wildfires) — it’s about hot, dry, windy conditions,” Hanson said. “Removing these trees is about the dumbest thing you can do.”

Logging opponents point to guidance in the county’s own Forest Health Plan, which was published last year. The plan advises the county to “promote larger diameter and fire-resistant trees such as ponderosa pine.”

“Many of the trees are clearly very old-growth,” Fox said. “Most of what was taken were ponderosas. Additionally, increased fire activity is directly related to higher temperatures and trees are responsible for carbon recapture. In a way, the ‘remedy’ actually contributes to what causes more fires.”

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But Germaine said it’s a misnomer to call the ponderosas that are being cut old-growth trees, a term that evokes more of an emotional response.

“Ponderosa pine trees only begin to take on old-growth characteristics between 200 to 300 years of age, and they may live to 400 to 500 years,” he said. “Some of the trees we are cutting are large, and some are approaching 125 years in age, but none are old-growth.”
And the notion that the county is making a windfall from timber sales resulting from the felling is simply untrue, Germaine said.

“We hire local small business people to do most of our forest thinning. A lot of the material is ground up and spread around on-site because it has no market value,” he said. “We hold firewood sales to provide wood to local residents, and the county does not profit from any of this.”

Jefferson County pays contractors about $3,500 an acre for thinning, Germaine said.
“It’s important to keep in mind that all of this wood is a result of 125-plus years of fire suppression and it wouldn’t have been here naturally,” he said. “For us, the main thing is that this excess wood gets removed as we return our forest stands to a safer, more natural state.”

Jefferson County Commissioner Andy Kerr said he’s heard from both sides in the debate — constituents who are dismayed by the cutting and constituents with homes that back up to county open space who wonder why Jefferson County isn’t doing more to mitigate fire danger on its land.

“Fire is going to happen, and if it does, we want to make sure it’s not the high-intensity fires that are going to obliterate everything,” he said.

©2023 MediaNews Group, Inc. Visit at denverpost.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



John Aguilar – The Denver Post EVERGREEN — Hundreds of freshly cut ponderosa logs lay stacked in rows in Elk Meadow Park, some measuring several feet in diameter — and more than a century old. Not far away, wood chips and slash litter a clearing where trees once stood. “My initial reaction was complete shock […]

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