In July, Pagosa District Ranger Kevin Khung approved the West Fork Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project.
According to forester Scott Wagner, the primary goal of the project is to reduce the risk of high severity fire and, secondarily, to improve the overall health of the forest by reduction of bark beetle, the damage from which has significantly increased since the 2002 drought.
Approximately 250 acres within and adjacent to the San Juan National Forest, around the West Fork campground, the old Wolf Creek campground and about 60 acres of the East Fork campground will be thinned — removing fire and disease prone trees.
The project entails more than removal of undergrowth, with removal of some larger trees as well. However, removal of only brush and small trees, Wagner says, will not be enough. “There would not be a sufficient impact.”
The first treatment phase of this project could come as soon as late summer or fall.
The forest service will issue contracts, and some traditional logging will take place.
“We’ll be removing some big trees,” Wagner says, however, clarifying that they will not be cutting down the oldest and largest trees in the forest. The older trees are more susceptible to beetle infestation as well as being fire prone.
A typical bark beetle attack begins with the adult insect flying to a tree it finds suitable as its host. There, it bores into the tree and underneath the bark, and the adult beetles mate. The female lays her eggs and dies. When the eggs hatch is the time the most destruction happens to the tree. The larvae feed off the tree’s nutrients, called cambium, and make tunnels. The effect on the tree, Wagner explains, is similar to cutting a human’s arteries — the flow of the life source is stopped. The tree dies, and the adult beetles fly away to another tree. This cycle can occur once every few months to once every two years.
By thinning the forest of vulnerable trees, Wagner says remaining trees are more able to resist beetle attacks. The healthier the tree, the higher chance it has at withstanding a bark beetle attack.
The white fir, blue spruce and Douglas fir trees are less fire-resistant than the particularly well-adapted Ponderosa pine. Its long needles, thick bark and self-pruning of lower branches help the tree to survive low intensity surface fires.
Historically, the forest around West Fork had a much different makeup than it currently does. The forest was once about 80 percent Ponderosa pine, 10 percent aspen and 10 percent other trees, mainly Douglas fir. Wagner says that the forest has pretty much flip-flopped in its composition. This project is one step toward getting the forest back to its original makeup. Wagner says the forest service would like to see around 70 percent of Ponderosa pine and 30 percent of a combination of aspen and Douglas fir.
Part of improving the health of the area includes promoting aspen regeneration. Where some plants and trees thrive off of low or no disturbance, the Ponderosa pine and aspen thrive with disturbance, such as fires.
In addition, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Aspen stands are good firebreaks, often dropping crown fires in conifer stands to the ground when they reach aspens and even sometimes extinguishing the fire because of the small amount of flammable accumulation.”
The West Fork area is not the only one where a forest health and fuel reduction project is needed. Currently, Wagner says the district has approved thinning in 12,000 acres in the Pagosa District of the San Juan National Forest.
“We’d need to do 1,500 to 2,000 acres per year to catch up with backlog,” Wagner said.
The West Fork project will make a dent in that, and all together will take an estimated three to five years to complete.