Dead Trees Fuel Local Controversy, But Not Necessarily Fire

Feb 2, 2018

Standing behind a card table filled with stacks of pamphlets, Joy and Duane Koewn greeted people as they walk into the Forest Service’s open house in Laramie. Their mission was to get people to oppose the Landscape Vegetation Analysis, or LaVA – a project that will enable the U.S. Forest Service to cut, thin, or burn up to 360,000 acres of forest land over 10 to 15 years. Duane Koewn is so vehemently opposed to that idea that he said the cause brought him out of retirement, but he said it’s not that he’s against logging.

“I logged in this forest. I worked for the Forest Service. I could saw logs, and I went up there for twelve hours a day for three months and I got out of debt,” Duane Koewn said.

Both Koewns are retired scientists, teachers, and conservationists.  Their problem with this project is that they think the area slated for treatment is too big, with too much uncertainty. Duane Koewn said the same goes for the roads the Forest Service will have to build to get to all of those trees.

“We’re especially disturbed with 600 miles of road. And they’re asking us to okay that without even knowing where they’re going to be,” he said.

The roads in the proposal would be temporary – the Forest Service would close them once the work was finished. But Koewn said, in his experience, there are no guarantees they’ll be able to recover roads that are big enough for trucks.  

The Koewns and other conservationists have several problems with what is happening. It started this past summer when there was a public meeting the Koewns did not know about. They say the agency did not do enough to notify people as they are required to by law, so they started a petition to get the Forest Service to take a step back, hold a new scoping meeting, and take more comments from the public. But the whole point of the LaVA project is that the Forest Service is trying to work more quickly to clear beetle kill out of parts of the forest. For their part, officials from the agency say they did notify the public about the summer meeting.

In late January, they invited people in Saratoga and Laramie to what they called public check-ins. 

Inside, it looked like a science fair, with local officials poised in front of poster boards and a decent turnout of people shuffling around the room. Tony Hoch of the Laramie Rivers Conservation District helped explain the LaVA project to visitors. 

“The crux of it is that chart right there,” Hoch said, “95,000 acres that could be clear-cut; 165,000  that could be selectively thinned. The last 100,000 thousand could be prescribed fire.”

There are several reasons the Forest Service wants to do something about beetle kill trees, and fast. They can sometimes be used for timber, but District Ranger Frank Romero said, “we have a short window of marketability of using the logs that we have right now.”

A lot of these trees have already been dead for a while, and the longer you leave them, the harder it is to find usable wood.  

Fire is another concern.

“It could come through and burn down all this dead and downed material,” Romero said.

Water infrastructure is another potential problem. Cheyenne gets its drinking water from two reservoirs in the national forest, and water managers worry that a fire would leave soil exposed, freeing up sediment to erode dams and clog pipes.

The Laramie River Conservation District’s Hoch said what he has heard from most people is that they just want to see something done.

“As someone who recreates up there, you can’t even move around,” Hoch said. 

Dr. Daniel Tinker is a University of Wyoming botanist who researches fire and disease ecology in the Medicine Bow National Forest. He said he can understand why people would look at a messy forest with dead trees and worry, but his research has taught him that widespread cutting or thinning is not necessary. 

“I think the forests are pretty resilient already,” Tinker said. “We’re getting a lot more other species– subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce, aspen even, coming in. So some of the stands – some of them, not all of them – are becoming more diverse in their composition.”

More diversity means the forest has a better chance of withstanding a future beetle outbreak.

And, Tinker said, when it comes to fire studies, they have not consistently shown that beetle kill leads to more severe fires. When trees are in red stage and covered in those explosive looking needles, this is true. Most people assume dead logs also make fires more dangerous, but in the scientific literature, Tinker said, “There’s far from agreement."

He referred to a review paper which analyzed 40 studies trying to understand how beetle kill impacts fire.

“It’s pretty much stand by stand and study by study, and the results are pretty diverse,” Tinker said. 

Tinker said he supports removing threats to human health and safety, such as trees that are swinging dangerously close to power lines, or increasing fire risk near homes. The Forest Service has been doing a lot of that. But he’s not sold on the LaVA project.

“I’m a little concerned about trying to treat that many acres, and not sure from reading the document that the science is behind a lot of the reasons for why they want to do the treatments,” Tinker said. 

The Forest Service plans to release its Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the LaVA project in May. Agency officials said that document will have more details on what they plan to do. At that point, Dr. Tinker, the Kouens, conservationists, and those in favor of the plan, will all have another opportunity to give the official comment.