Atop Utah’s West Tavaputs Plateau, a state-funded experiment has been underway for the past few years to see whether bulldozing overgrown conifer stands can bring back aspen forests.
Pioneered by a Utah company called 106 Reforestation, the unconventional method of logging, known as “roller felling,” uses a cable strung between two dozers and kept off the ground with a massive roller. The dozers haul the cable through the woods, pulling every tree out of the ground, then the dozers go back and push the woody debris into tidy linear piles to be burned.
Now the Utah Legislature wants to drastically scale up this proprietary method and put it to work across the state, even on public lands. In the recently concluded session, lawmakers appropriated $1 million toward a campaign selling roller felling to federal land managers as a way to increase stream flows, even though there is no data, aside from anecdotes, that show stripping forests would improve water yields.
The campaign is led by Don Peay, the omnipresent hunting spokesman whose latest foray into the world of advocacy is a new nonprofit called Atlantis USA Foundation.
“We’ve seen four springs reappear [on the Tavaputs] and a flowing creek that hasn’t flowed in 30 years. So what we’re really doing is we’re making liquid gold. Water,” Peay told an appropriations subcommittee last month. “We’re just dumb farm boys that understand this kind of stuff, but you can make 40 to 60% more water yield to streams and aquifers if we manage our trees appropriately.”
Peay launched Atlantis last year with 106 Reforestation founder Mike Siaperas, a landowner on the West Tavaputs and CEO of Med USA, a Utah medical billing firm. The name 106 refers to the number of acres in Utah’s Pando aspen grove, believed to be the world’s largest organism.
Siaperas developed roller felling on his own property a decade ago and has since won multiple state contracts totaling $3.4 million to treat the nearby Preston Nutter and Limpert ranches, as well as state trust lands and a wildlife management area. In recent years he has has sought two patents for inventions associated with the method, one for the roller and another for a felling blade mounted to the dozers.
Siaperas did not respond to a voicemail.
Since 2020, his forest treatments have been studied by Utah State University scientists commissioned to gauge their effectiveness toward reducing fuel loads and restoring aspen. The study’s first phase is complete and the findings will be released in the next few weeks, according to study co-leader Justin DeRose, a former member of the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Ogden. In the wake of the treatments, more than 100,000 aspen suckers were counted in a single acre.
“It looks terrible immediately afterwards, but in terms of regeneration of aspen on that land form, it works really well,” said DeRose, a USU professor of wildland resources. “This method can achieve the results of stand-replacing fire without the risks.”
However, the study has covered only two years so far, which is not long enough to draw lasting conclusions, he added.
“This needs to be monitored for much longer times to see if what we found stays consistent,” DeRose said.
He also cautioned that his study did not measure stream flow response to the treatments.
DeRose noted that dozers can’t operate on slopes steep sloper than 30%, making roller felling impossible in many mountainous areas.
Aspen is one of the West’s key tree species, which has been gradually pushed aside by conifers in some places. Grazing and a lack of wildfire have stymied new growth of aspen, which reproduces by suckering from root systems shared by entire groves of genetically identical, or cloned, trees.
For years, the Forest Service has relied on prescribed and natural fire to bring aspen back.
Once aspen stands burn, the ground is often covered with thousands of aspen shoots within a year, resulting in a rejuvenated grove if livestock can be kept out. Ungulates, both wild and domestic, eat aspen shoots if given a chance.
The loss of aspen has reduced biodiversity, increased risks for catastrophic fire and dried out the soils, experts say. Restoring quaking aspen, Utah’s state tree, is one of the Forest Service’s goals, but the agency isn’t rushing to embrace roller felling.
The treatment is analogous to “chaining” on lower-elevation lands where bulldozers yank pinyon pine and juniper from the ground with chains. This practice is common on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, but applying bulldozers to fragile alpine terrain raises several ecological concerns that have never been addressed, much less resolved, according to critics.
Forest restoration projects should mimic natural processes, according to Marc Coles-Ritchie, Utah public lands program manager for the Grand Canyon Trust.
“A solution that more closely mimics natural process would be prescribed fire,” he said. “The problem with the heavy machinery and the chain is you rip out the trees and it creates an enormous amount of soil disturbance.”
First, it pulls up dirt with the roots, turning it over, then the dozers themselves are tearing up the ground and compacting the soil.
“They’re creating so much loose soil that is very vulnerable to erosion,” Coles-Ritchie said. “So the soil and seeds get eroded off that landscape.”
Since 2019, 106 Forestation has roller felled hundreds of acres of private and state land on the Tavaputs. Officials now hope to replicate these efforts across the state, including public land overseen by the U.S. Forest Service.
But there’s a problem with that. Any fuel reduction treatments — whether it’s prescribed fire, conventional thinning or bulldozers — on national forests require analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which can delay the implementation of a project by a year or more and increase costs.
“That’s a time frame a lot of people in private industry have a hard time dealing with,” DeRose said. “The impetus here is you can treat more acres faster.”
Atlantis would use the current $500,000 appropriation to pursue congressional action that would clear a path for roller felling, possibly by exempting such treatments from NEPA requirements.
“We’ve actually been working a lot with Congress to get this scaled up,” Peay told lawmakers. “We’ve been able to do this on the lower elevation BLM lands with pinyon [and] juniper. The Forest Service is the challenge. So in the next year or two, we hope to have laws changed, so we can get on high elevation.”
In its promotional materials, 106 Reforestation likens roller felling to the natural disruptions that once rejuvenated the West’s forested landscapes by clearing out dead wood and decrepit overgrowth, thus stimulating new growth.
But compared to prescribed fire and conventional thinning, the 106 method is faster and cheaper, according to several Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials who are interviewed on the company’s videos. A four-man crew can clear up to 50 acres in a day.
“There’s only so many ways that we can influence keeping fires from becoming bad catastrophic fires, and one of those is managing the vegetation,” said Brian Cottam, then the director of DNR’s Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “The 106 process is a really good tool that can meet these objectives.”
He said the state funding was needed to show roller felling can work for improving forest health and reducing wildfire risk. Cottam later left the Utah DNR to work for 106 Reforestation as its director of natural resource management and governmental affairs.
“My staff is pretty intrigued with what’s going on up there, both foresters we’ve had on the ground, but certainly the fire folks because they’re seeing how quickly fuels can be reduced,” Cottam said in the video. “We say we need to increase pace and scale [of forest restoration]. Well then, we’ve got to be receptive to those that want to offer a different way of doing it.”
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