Lawmakers gave millions to support a private landowner’s unusual wildfire prevention method. Does it work?

“Roller felling” encourages aspen stands, but how long the results last and whether it’s any better than other forest treatments remain big unknowns.

(106 Reforestation) This image from a promotional video shows how a Utah company called 106 Reforestation bulldozes overgrown forests on the Tavaputs Plateau with the hope of restoring aspen that have been crowded out by subalpine fir and other conifers. The Utah Legislature has appropriated $4.4 million dollars since 2019 to promote the experimental forest treatments as a way to enhance stream flows.

Utah lawmakers have allocated millions so a private landowner could deploy a little-tested, controversial tree-removal method. And after a few years of study, it’s still not clear whether it’s any better than what the state’s resource managers have long done to manage forests.

A somewhat new company called 106 Reforestation first presented the concept of “roller felling” to an appropriations committee in 2019. The approach strings a chain between two bulldozers, dragging it across the landscape and uprooting vast swaths of vegetation. The method can down 40 acres of trees in a day. The idea is to create an environmental upheaval so disturbance-loving aspen will dominate instead of conifers, resulting in a less fire-prone forest.

The method has only been used on a few, largely flat private properties on eastern Utah’s Tavaputs Plateau. But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from appropriating $4 million or more toward 106 Reforestation’s method with little public discussion or debate.

“It amazes me how anybody ... could come up with that much money and that much support from the Legislature for something that’s completely unknown, that’s never been done before,” said Darren McAvoy, an extension assistant professor of forestry at Utah State University.

The company’s founder and CEO, Mike Siaperas, has a professional background that mostly involves medical billing software, not forest management, according to his LinkedIn profile. But he began tinkering with mechanical tree management on his Tavaputs ranch in the early 2010s. He founded 106 Reforestation in 2017.

Lawmakers required USU researchers to evaluate Siaperas’s roller felling as part of a two-year pilot program on one of his neighbor’s properties. However, that study came with a big caveat — the scope didn’t allow for an evaluation of how 106 Reforestation’s process stacks up against traditional forest management strategies, like commercial logging, prescribed burns and selectively removing certain trees by hand or machine.

“We need a direct comparison across these methods,” said Larissa Yocom, an associate professor of fire ecology and one of the USU researchers who spearheaded the USU pilot study, acknowledging the limitations. “And we need to test it on different landscapes.”

Do aspen forests really prevent wildfire?

The scientists found roller felling does stimulate aspen regrowth, at least in environments suitable for growing them.

“Aspen thrives on disturbance,” whether through fire or getting knocked down, Yocom said. “As long as roots are not completely ripped out of the ground, it resprouts.”

Siaperas and 106 Reforestation rely on a significant presumption, however — that aspen forests are less susceptible to wildfire.

“Aspen stands have been proven to be more fire resistant,” Siaperas wrote in response to an emailed list of questions, “and do not burn near as catastrophically as pine.”

As of now, there’s no scientific consensus supporting that idea, according to Yocom.

“That’s something firefighters know, that forest managers have seen happen, but the evidence hasn’t been brought together in one place before,” Yocom said. “We took one step back to look at that assumption and see what evidence there is for that, and in which cases it’s true, because it’s not always true.”

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune A USDA Forest Service fire crew work to put out the wildfire burning north of the southern Utah ski town of Brian Head Tuesday, June 20, 2017.

After reviewing several dozen studies available on aspen and interviewing firefighters and forest managers, Yocom and her team found large stands of pure — emphasis on pure — aspen in good weather conditions likely do reduce fire risk. But once conifers grow back and mix with the aspen, or shrubs and other vegetation grow in the understory, or dry conditions kick in, those stands can burn quickly and intensely.

Aspen stands are especially prone to burn and spread wildfire when they’re surrounded by a lot of dead, downed wood — and 106 Reforestation’s roller felling results in massive slash piles of dead, downed wood.

“That’s one of the gaping issues,” Yocom said. “... The slash piles, if they catch [fire], would be impossible to put out and potentially put the surrounding forest at risk.”

Even in a well-managed, careful burn, the piles 106 Reforestation produced would probably get so hot they’d sterilize the soil, researchers said. And the heavy machinery they use could lead to soil compaction.

“It’s not as good for plants to grow, basically,” Yocom said. “You don’t get water infiltration and it’s hard for living things to get their roots in there.”

Loads of unknowns

The USU study only spanned two years, so it’s difficult to know what kind of maintenance roller felling treatments need to keep conifers from growing back or prevent other fuels from building up.

Roller felling probably will only realistically work on relatively flat ground, like the Tavaputs Plateau, because of dozer access and issues with soil erosion, researchers said. And it costs about the same as some other forestry management methods, according to information researchers presented to lawmakers.

“There are pros and cons to any method, and this method is not going to solve all the issues,” Yocom said. “It won’t work in many places in Utah.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aspens on the Discovery Trail in Summit County on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.

About 200 of the large, fire-prone slash piles remain on private land as a result of the 106 Reforestation pilot, according to Jamie Barnes, director of the Utah Division of Forestry Fire and State Lands, the state agency overseeing the project and managing most of its funds.

“My biggest concern with the slash piles,” Barnes said, “is who takes responsibility for the burning of those piles?”

The 2019 contract, signed before Barnes became director, left it up to the landowner to figure out what to do with the aftermath.

(Barnes’s predecessor, Brian Cottam, worked as a consultant for 106 Reforestation after he left the division, Siaperas confirmed.)

Because her division is ultimately responsible for any fire that spreads out of control on private, state or unincorporated land, Barnes said the lingering slash piles cause her some “angst.”

(Utah State University) Photos from a pilot study of 106 Reforestation's unconventional roller felling tree removal show the large slash piles left behind, with researchers circled to show scale of the debris.

Beyond burning, Siaperas suggested burying or harvesting timber from the slash piles as possible solutions. Or land managers could use the fallout as fences to block grazing wildlife from disturbing new aspen sprouts.

“It is our hope that 106 Reforestation can continue to participate with future studies,” Siaperas wrote, “so we can understand the outcomes of our treatment methodologies and continue improving upon our conservation efforts.”

As Barnes and USU scientists presented their pilot program findings to an interim committee last month, at least one lawmaker expressed concern over the study’s limitations and lukewarm findings, along with the Legislature’s willingness to back 106 Reforestation without much scrutiny.

“I understand the political pressures that were probably applied in moving forward with this,” said Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, at the hearing.

But, Snider said, the scientists’ inability to compare roller felling with other forestry methods made it difficult to determine how to responsibly delegate taxpayer dollars on wildfire treatments in the future.

“This particular method has been one we’ve appropriated significant money toward, and I suspect going forward we’ll be asked for additional appropriations,” he said. “... The assumption’s going to be made that this is the best way. You didn’t say that in your study.”

Private trees and public money

Utah lawmakers budgeted $3.4 million over the last four years for “strategic and targeted forest fire treatment and mitigation.” The windfall is meant to fund treatments “using the mechanical treatment process of 106 Reforestation,” according to a Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands spokesperson.

Barnes confirmed $2 million of that money went to 106 Reforestation’s Tavaputs Plateau work on private land starting in 2019, although $287,000 has yet to get invoiced and paid.

Another $900,000 will pay 106 Reforestation for treatment of the Currant Creek Wildlife Management Area, Barnes said, after the Department of Natural Resources put the project out for bid. It’ll be the first time the method is tested on public land. The remaining $500,000 hasn’t been pegged to a specific project yet, but it could go to 106 Reforestation as well since it’s the only company using the treatment process lawmakers singled out.

This year, lawmakers also gave $1 million to the Atlantis USA Foundation. The nonprofit’s website describes it as “a community of warriors, intellects, leaders and loyalists who are committed to using their strengths to make a difference in the world” and lists 106 Reforestation as a partner.

Siaperas confirmed he founded Atlantis. It appears the foundation will aid veterans by recruiting them to work on 106 Reforestation’s treatment projects, potentially starting subsidiaries of their own.

“In our experience, these military veterans are naturally attracted to conservation work,” Siaperas wrote, “and we have found the skills these veterans have are uniquely suited to what’s required at 106 Reforestation.”

It’s unclear whether anyone has invested in Siaperas’s roller felling method besides Utah lawmakers. Testimonials on 106 Reforestation’s website are mostly current or former state employees (including Cottam) and the manager of the private property used in the state-funded pilot.

“We have separate work contracts besides the state,” Siaperas said when asked if he had other clients.

McAvoy, with the USU extension, spends much of his time working with private landowners who have large, forested properties. He became familiar with Siaperas’s forestry work around a decade ago. He wrote about Siapera’s experiments with aspen regeneration in a 2013 newsletter, led a tour of Siapera’s Tavaputs ranch in 2015 and gave a virtual presentation about 106 Reforestation in 2020.

McAvoy said he has a “positive” relationship with Siaperas. But he’s neutral about property owners’ land management ideas and he does not necessarily advocate roller felling.

“Forestry professionals, and the [U.S.] Forest Service in particular, have [often said] … ‘We need to increase the pace and scale of treatment to get ahead of wildland fire,’” McAvoy said. “Mike has listened to us say this at forestry meetings, and here he’s come up with a potential answer.”

Still, McAvoy said, the long-term effects of roller felling remain unknown. With all its big equipment, it can’t be quickly deployed for an active fire situation. And, after all of his writings and presentations about Siapera’s work, McAvoy said he hasn’t heard much interest in the method from other landowners. He said he wasn’t aware of anyone paying for 106 Reforestation’s treatments other than the state.

“He’s obviously got some strong influence with local legislators,” McAvoy said. “It’s surprising that the Utah Legislature will support something that’s unproven.”

Don Peay — an influential big game advocate who has garnered a sizeable amount of state funds himself to lobby against wolves in Utah — has been a vocal supporter of Siaperas, 106 Reforestation and the Atlantis USA Foundation on Capitol Hill.

This year, Peay even floated 106 Reforestation’s roller felling as a way to free up “liquid gold” water in arid Utah during an appropriations subcommittee hearing. Salt Lake County Council member Dea Theodore also championed the idea, claiming chopping down conifers (she even suggested using 106 Reforestation specifically) could save the Great Salt Lake. Scientists told The Tribune earlier this year the method is unlikely to create more water and could make things worse.

“The 106R process clearly has the most potential in pace and scale,” Siaperas wrote in his emailed responses, “to yield more water to Utah in the most expeditious manner with the least amount of disruption.”

But Barnes, with the division of forestry, pushed back on that notion.

“Removing trees is not going to be the solution to drought,” she said, “and is not going to completely mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfire. It’s just another tool in the toolbox.”