Thinning for healthy forests

Staff Writer

private-land-thinning-IMG_0433 SUN photos/Terri House
A long-arm Valnet 911 tree processing unit used to sort felled logs stands on a Hidden Valley property last weekend.

JR Ford’s Forest Health Company, operated by the Pagosa Cattle Company, is moving forward with forestry treatments on private parcels in the Hidden Valley subdivision.

The primary objectives of the ponderosa forest treatment and thinning operations are to reduce the risk of intense wildfire and protect the watershed that drains into private Hidden Valley Lake.

In the event of wildfire, silt could clog the drainage and build starting at the north end of the lake, greatly reducing water quality and availability. Hidden Valley residents and property owners utilize the lake for irrigation and domestic purposes, as well as enjoy it as a recreational fishery.

SUN photos/Terri House Cut logs sit on a Hidden Valley property waiting to be sorted by a processing unit into saw logs and logs to be turned into wood chips. SUN photos/Terri House
Cut logs sit on a Hidden Valley property waiting to be sorted by a processing unit into saw logs and logs to be turned into wood chips.

Other entities such as the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership (SJHFHP), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and U.S. Forest service (USFS) are engaged in forest treatment operations on surrounding public lands, including land in the Stevens Reservoir drainage.

Ford explained that federal grant monies currently being used to support thinning operations pay approximately $90 of landowner cost for forestry treatments that range from $800 to $2,000 per acre, depending on forest condition and the size of a treatment area. These funds have been made available to treat more acreage through partnerships and involvement with the entities listed above. Additionally, almost all land in Archuleta County is included in a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, so lands are pre-approved for forestry treatments and able to receive grant monies to assist with those processes.

Despite the upfront expense, Ford explained how many Hidden Valley landowners hope to get ahead of the costs of fire mitigation by investing in forestry treatments — although residents and land managers can’t stop fires, steps can be taken to mediate and prevent catastrophic impacts to important watersheds and to property assets. Treatments that are properly carried out also greatly benefit wildlife, wetlands and numerous other natural resources.

When carrying out thinning operations, Ford’s employees remove trees and ladder fuels from land that currently supports 200 to 400 trees per acre, aiming to leave between 110 and 120 trees per acre. During treatment, workers create a landscape mosaic, with clumps of trees and open parks, rather than a uniform forest makeup. Varied forest densities on a given property and across more expansive landscapes help support wildlife populations, bolster functional natural systems and encourage the growth of beneficial understory grass and forb species.

“Differences in landowner opinion and property management goals actually help to create landscape diversity on a larger scale,” explained Ford.

Most of the properties currently being thinned in the Hidden Valley area were timbered 20 years ago, and thinned afterwards. The process being carried out now is referred to as a restoration or resettlement cut.

According to Ford, this project will take at least ten years to complete, but the watershed protection and reduced risk of intense fire that will result will benefit Hidden Valley residents and neighboring lands alike. The Hidden Valley watershed area also has additional protection from wildfire damage due to the presence of drain down ponds containing filtering bull rush, originally constructed to protect the lake fishery from accumulating deposits at the north end of the lake.

The forest restoration treatment currently being carried out by Ford’s Forest Health Company is unique in that it is a traditional cut-to-length timber operation that incorporates the use of a whole tree chipper and product removal — two aspects of forestry projects not typically carried out in the United States, but more common in European countries. As such, there are more steps involved in the process, but it is cleaner and feeds forest products into local markets.

Before any treatment is done, Ford and employees walk the woods on a property with a landowner in addition to any representatives from involved federal agencies. This surveying process helps to ensure that landowner goals are met by treatment, as are fire mitigation objectives. After drawing up a plan of action, the Forest Health Company begins cutting trees with a hot saw to the pre-determined prescription. During this phase of the operation, trees are separated into piles of ten inches or less and ten inches and greater in diameter. For business and marketing purposes, Ford pays landowners for saw logs ten inches or greater in diameter, and landowners pay Ford to remove smaller-diameter logs.

After logs are piled, a processing unit cuts larger saw logs out of tree piles, de-limbing and topping them. Remaining limbs, tops and small logs are then turned into wood chips on site using a whole tree chipper. The chipper then dumps chips into large boxes that haul trucks can take to a storage location off of Cloman Boulevard by the airport. Saw logs are transported by the same trucks to this location.

If a landowner desires, Ford’s company also has the equipment to cut tree stumps down to the ground and turn up pine needles on the forest floor to encourage faster generation of open parks and growth of understory species, but this service is provided only at additional charge. Due to the all-encompassing nature of the operation, little to no slash and minimal debris is left where forestry work has been done.

Ford explained that he also plans to utilize forest materials resulting from thinning operations both to create and support a localized timber market and to generate electric power he plans to sell back to the local power grid. The company is currently in the process of building a saw mill to process saw logs at the product storage facility off of Cloman Boulevard. Saw operations are expected to begin in March, although it will take time to navigate and identify reliable markets for processed logs.

In addition to selling logs, Ford plans to generate electrical power using a high-powered gas stove. Applying pressure and heat to the wood chips will alter their chemical make up, creating a gas that will spin turbines and generate electricity. According to Ford, this method could produce approximately one third of the power used in Archuleta County per year if 50,000 tons of chips per year were processed.

This locally-produced power would be sold directly into the local power grid — the grid would not have to be upgraded to deliver the power to users. In fact, Ford’s company would sell electricity into the grid via a booster station at the edge of the Cloman storage and processing facility. In order to produce Ford’s predicted one-third of the electricity used in the county per year, 50,000 green tons of wood chips (about 20 percent moisture) would have to be processed in the gas stove.

Spinning of turbines from this amount of chip burning would generate roughly 5 megawatts of electrical power, enough to run 4,166 energy-efficient refrigerators and roughly one-third of the power used yearly in Archuleta County. To generate this power, Ford’s company would need to treat between 1,500 and 1,800 acres of forest each year. Ford is currently negotiating with La Plata Electric Association (LPEA) about how to sell produced energy back to the grid.

Although the Forest Health Company is working on private land in the Hidden Valley area, these thinning operations are one small part of more extensive forest treatments and watershed protection efforts. In addition, the products resulting from forest treatment efforts including saw logs and electric power could be a boon to county residents. Reduced fire risk on any specific property in the county further reduces the risk of severe fire and its effects, including those on important watersheds, in general. Also, thinning operations are intended to support ecosystems that harbor wildlife, including important game species in the area. Finally, Ford’s operations are creating local jobs and employees are being trained to use unique equipment.

Despite all of the potential benefits to both private land owners and the community, Ford explains that large-scale forest treatment projects, like that his company is part of, cannot be successful without community buy-in and support.