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Scott Fitzwilliams, left, and Glenn Adams discuss the health of an aspen grove in the White River National Forest near Silt, Colorado. Photo by Michael Brands.
Cutting edge of forest fight: Chain-saw environmentalism
Is active management best, or is it futile to fight nature?
First Published May 21 2012 02:35 pm • Last Updated May 21 2012 02:38 pm

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune on November 26, 2011.

Aspen, Colo. • Here is the next front in America's fight for its Western forests.

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Too late to head off a wave of climate-fueled beetles that have altered the evergreen landscape for generations - if not forever - foresters still believe they can rejuvenate this resort town's namesake. They say the white bark and fluttering yellow heart-shaped leaves that announce fall in the Rocky Mountains are due for a pruning.

It's chain-saw environmentalism, and some of the West's most ardent wilderness lovers have signed on. They face strong opposition from groups that believe Mother Nature can best repair her own, and their struggle over how best to legally protect untrammeled wild lands will profoundly shape the future of these hills.

"It's no longer as easy as just saying wilderness is good and everything else is bad," said John Bennett, a former Aspen mayor and current executive director of the advocacy group For the Forest.

Will aspen shoots - food to elk and other cherished Rocky Mountain wildlife - keep springing from the slopes in a warming and drying region? Can they without human help?

Government foresters want to start cutting down swaths of century-old aspens in hopes that young "suckers" will sprout from the roots to build a new forest. It's how many of the aspens would have reproduced naturally during the 1900s had Americans allowed fire to scour more of the old trees from the land.

Today, there is some urgency because a widespread collapse that accelerated during a 2004-08 drought foreshadowed dire predictions of climate-linked losses over the next 50 years. The die-off blighted nearly a fifth of Colorado's aspen stands, researchers say, thinning about a quarter of the forest crown in most of them with precious little regrowth.

Cutting aspens now, in the absence of drought, could regrow vigorous young trees before the next dry spell strikes.

"We certainly don't have any silver bullets," said Jim Worrall, a U.S. Forest Service Forest Health Protection pathologist in Gunnison, Colo., who studied the past decade's so-called Sudden Aspen Decline syndrome. "But we do know that aspen stands less than about 40 years old were not really affected by Sudden Aspen Decline."

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Thus, cutting for regrowth is a prescription that's taken firm root with foresters and opened a divide among environmentalists who might have unified against logging - if not for the wild card of climate change.

"Nature knows best," said Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Colorado's Wilderness Workshop and a skeptic of the rush into forest interventions. He supports efforts to clear beetle-killed pines posing fire hazards and watershed threats around communities, but believes the aspens and other trees deep in the woods should adapt on their own.

"History is writ with many examples of humans monkeying in natural systems that have gone awry."

That's why Shoemaker and others with a more traditional wilderness ethic favor a hotly debated revision of Colorado's roadless forest rule. The state and U.S. Forest Service are considering local changes to a nationwide 2001 rule protecting pristine forests from road construction, and one of several proposals under review would tighten restrictions considerably. It would generally ban tree cutting on 2.6 million acres of "upper-tier" protection zones - two-thirds of the state's roadless areas.

Millions of acres of dead pines and spruces naturally give aspens new areas to colonize, Shoemaker said, while foresters seem fixated on old aspen stands in areas that aren't likely to support them in the future. They want to prevent oak brush and other dryland species from taking over slopes that he believes are becoming ill-suited to aspens.

"Trying to freeze an aspen stand in time," he said, "is fighting nature."

Sitting pretty

Others who love wilderness, and indeed moved here to live among it, point to the bark-beetle infestation - which stripped more than 6 million acres of Colorado evergreens - as evidence such hard-line protections are outdated.

"I'm a total wilderness advocate," said Tom Cardamone, who moved here to work on a student-led wilderness campaign in 1972 and now directs the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies [ACES]. "Also, I recognize the increasing importance of hands-on forest management."

ACES has a staff of naturalists whose mission statement seeks to nurture lifelong commitments to the Earth while "restoring the balance of natural communities." Defining and championing proper balance can be difficult in a resort community where most residents moved because they liked things just the way they were - a problem Cardamone calls "the challenge of the perception of the pristine."

If a place looks nice and attracts hikers and mountain bikers, he said, they don't necessarily weigh whether its ecology is out of whack. Locals have battled the center's efforts to restore a stretch of the Roaring Fork River from gravel mining and an alpine bog from peat removal, he said, because the areas remained pretty. Both projects went forward, and now both are hailed as ecological successes.

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