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Cutting edge of forest fight: Chain-saw environmentalism
Is active management best, or is it futile to fight nature?

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So it is with struggling forests, Cardamone believes. Residents don't like the idea of roads and heavy equipment trudging through pristine wilderness, but "I'm also concerned about the damage of climate change to pristine wilderness."

The bark beetles that have munched through at least 40 million acres of Western evergreens since 1997 served a warning. Aided by warming winters and lengthening summers, they attacked forests that were effectively overpopulated. Individual trees competed for soil moisture and daylight to steel themselves against the onslaught, and when it was too late for people to react on a landscape level, foresters started thinning trees in an effort to save favored recreation spots or reduce fire hazards.

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The question now is whether active management would avoid a similar collapse among another key forest species, or whether it's futile to play God. Which lesson should be taken?

Dangers of drought

Aspens host their own species of native bark beetles, and those can find heightened success during droughts. But it is the drought itself - heat coupled with drying soils - that scientists believe threatens to shrink aspen range, currently stretching along the Rockies from Mexico to Alaska.

The Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station has used greenhouse-gas projections to estimate that up to half the suitable aspen range in the central Rockies will vanish under something like permanent drought by 2060, eliminating low-elevation stands.

Some ecologists believe aspens are resilient, though, and argue that something besides logging could help them thrive.

"The prime culprits are the rising elk populations in the West and, in some cases, livestock," said Paul Rogers, director of Utah State University's Western Aspen Alliance. Hunting more elk, restoring wolves to push them around and better managing livestock, he said, would help aspen sprouts survive in many places.

Rogers doubts Sudden Aspen Decline is as widespread as others say. He doesn't question that, for instance, 17 percent of Colorado's aspen stands suffered in the past drought, but he doesn't believe the roots are dead in most of those. Protect the areas from overgrazing and browsing, he said, and many would spring back. Aspens have expanded and contracted with previous climate shifts.

Logging trees, as the Forest Service wants, would stimulate new growth, Rogers said. But none of the sprouts would climb past "mouth-high" if wildlife and livestock aren't managed accordingly.

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"Don't do anything," he warned, "unless you have a way to protect [new growth] afterward."

Buying time

If fire suppression has built aspen forests that are unnaturally old and uniform in age, shaking them up makes sense to Cardamone. Doing so might stimulate young aspens and buy the forest time for humans to slow climate change.

Roadless protections for their own sake, he said, aren't the ultimate goal anymore.

"Road or no road, if all the trees are dead because we didn't do something wise," Cardamone said, "we may regret that."

That's the plea echoing around the White River National Forest, which surrounds Aspen and shelters the nation's largest elk herd. District rangers and Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams fear that if public pressure leads their agency bosses to choose the most restrictive alternative for their new roadless rule, the forest will shrivel. It's not even about roads, he said, because the agency could cut trees without building any - if the roadless rule allows.

"We're losing our aspen pretty quickly in this part of the world," Fitzwilliams said on a recent drive into the Divide Creek Basin. And more than half the forest there is aspen, mostly tall, stout, old.

Eighty percent are mature to "overmature," he said.

Fitzwilliams drove up dirt roads past elaborate hunting camps of tents and buses - even one big rig hauled into the woods to outfit enthusiasts - showing what draws elk hunters here, and what he believes is at stake.

Elk thrive among aspens, but here and there along Divide Creek, century-old trees are toppling under their own weight, with nothing but grass growing under them. Eventually, without active management, he believes spruces and firs will fill in some of these gaps, squeezing out elk and deer. Oak brush will creep up other slopes.

And Divide Creek, it turns out, is among those zones that his crews couldn't touch if the Forest Service designates 2.6 million acres for full roadless protections. Step off the existing roads, Fitzwilliams said, and you couldn't cut a tree in the name of forest health. "If this all becomes upper-tier roadless, I'm out of business."

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