Discussing the Future of Ponderosa Pine and the Timber Economy in Southwest Colorado
Authors: Rebecca Samulski
Vallecito Lake, nestled in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, lies within a ponderosa pine ecosystem. It therefore provided the perfect setting for FireWise of Southwest Colorado’s Ponderosa Pine Connection: Science & Industry meeting this fall. The event focused on science-based forest management and the local timber economy. Particular attention was paid to discussing how to harvest, process and market timber and wood products for desired ecological and economic outcomes. It was an interesting and productive two days, with 40 participants in attendance.
The concept of converging the topics of forest management and conservation was rooted in the success of an Aspen Symposium, held with the San Juan National Forest in the 1990s. It was that event, over two decades ago, that got traditionally divergent timber industry and environmental groups on the same page regarding aspen harvesting and resulted in San Juan National Forest’s smooth aspen sales ever since. Since the 1980s and 1990s, many stakeholders to southwest Colorado’s forests have demonstrated a commitment to using science as the framework for treatment and harvesting decisions. Nevertheless, forest management decisions aren’t without challenge in our region. Specifically, our limited industry capacity and a perceived disconnect between managing forests for timber, forest health and wildfire risk reduction both present obstacles.
In order to help resolve that disconnect, our Ponderosa Pine Connection took a multi-day, field trip approach to exploring different forest management approaches. The presentations on day one and the field tour the second morning defined three perspectives regarding how the group might better manage our frequent-fire forests: resistance, resilience and transition.* Presentations included a research-based affirmation of the role of fire in ponderosa pine stands, as well as discussion around climate and ecosystem modeling. The group also discussed how it could manage the forests using the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station’s 2013 Restoring Composition and Structure in Southwestern Frequent-Fire Forests: A Science-Based Framework for Improving Ecosystem Resiliency General Technical Report (GTR)-310.
The discussion moved to a tree farm the second day. This particular farm performed traditional timber harvesting for years, but last year Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) supported it in treating 40 acres using GTR-310 guidelines. The treatment area provided an ideal setting for discussing the ecology and economics of this treatment type. There was general support for the approach taken, but some clear challenges on the site as well. There were obvious benefits for understory diversity; however, due to past timber harvest, the stand was fairly even aged, making a selection for age diversity impossible. This site’s ponderosa pine ecologically provides a perfect opportunity to reintroduce fire, but socially, the wildland-urban interface landscape and landowner preference probably won’t enable this type of follow up treatment.
To facilitate discussion in the field, the group was divided into sub-groups for three rounds of presentations and discussions. Each group spent a portion of time with the landowner, discussing the treatment history and prescription. They also explored implementation of the GTR-310 approach, getting some pointers on how to mark trees based on landscape characteristics and prescribe a treatment, with guidance from foresters with NRCS, USDA Forest Service, and Colorado State Forest Service. Lastly, each group reviewed the economics of this kind of treatment with representatives of the Colorado Timber Industry Association and Pagosa Forest Products, the largest local ponderosa pine operator in our region.
The Ponderosa Pine Connection concluded with brainstorming some ways to better support the timber industry, as their capacity is essential to achieving the region’s forest management objectives. The field trip served as an intentional transition from the first day’s discussion to the final afternoon, during which we explored opportunities to sustain and expand industry capacity for treatment in this forest type. We utilized several meeting engagement strategies and tools from the Liberating Structures website to engage participants in identifying short-term opportunities and long-term goals for southwest Colorado’s timber economy.
One of the Ponderosa Pine Connection attendees, a regional biomass working group, is following up on the key action items related to the goals identified. The working group has about $5,000 to kick-start one of these action items this winter. The working group will also seek interested partners to pursue the other short-range ideas. These short-range opportunities include: conducting a feasibility analysis of collection yards and kiln procurement; performing a market analysis to complement the Regional Assessment of the Timber Economy in Southwest Colorado 2015 report (Licata, et al.); and developing a local lumber marketing campaign. The group also prioritized a lot of longer range timber industry-related ideas, balancing some tongue-in-cheek ones such as “requiring all new homes to be built of 12-inch-diameter ponderosa” with slightly more realistic goals like “waiving permit fees for the use of locally derived wood products.” These big picture ideas were meant to get creativity flowing and keep minds open about what could be possible in our region to support wood products industries.
We are looking forward to expanding science-based treatments and the wood products industry in southwest Colorado. We hope that the interest, energy and ideas flowing from the Ponderosa Pine Connection will be a launching point for bringing timber and fire goals together across ownerships and landscapes.
Additional sponsors of the event included the Southern Rockies Fire Science Network, Mountain Studies Institute, San Juan National Forest, Colorado State Forest Service, and the Colorado Timber Industry Association.