Published in the Mountain Gazette, December 2007 and January 2008

 Part One:  The Dead Forest

            “People will have to get used to the Dead Forest Look.”

            That prediction came from a landscape architect, a quarter-century ago in the Denver offices of the U.S. Forest Service Region Two (basically the Rocky Mountains). The speaker, Herb Mittman, was working on a new “landscape management” program for the Forest Service, part of the 1976 Congressionally-mandated forest planning process.

            Today – about halfway through the 50-year planning period the Forest Service was working on (1980-2030) – those of us who live in the Rocky Mountains, from far northern Canada all the way down through northern New Mexico and Arizona, are in fact having to get used to the dead forest look. Over the past half decade, whole mountainsides have turned rusty with death – first, patches of trees with dead red needles, then the patches spreading and linking up until now, the rust color dominates on some slopes, whole mountainsides of dead trees that, as the needles begin to fall off, turn gray. The dead forest look.

            That’s just the more obvious situation – the already dead forests. We also have a lot of trees in the forests today that still look okay, but have the forces of epidemic death already at work in them. If you are out skiing or snowshoeing in or near the Dead Forest this winter, stop and look closely at the remaining green pine or spruce trees. If you see a mature tree that has a lot of little dollops of pitch spotted on its trunk, you are looking at a dying tree, even though it is still green. Underneath the bark, radiating away from each of those little popcornish kernels of sap, little maggoty grubs will be gnawing an intricate filigree of death in the tree’s living layer of cells. If it is another winter without a long, nasty cold spell – temperatures in the minus-30s for days – then come summer, each of those little maggots, having fed on the life of the tree, will turn into a flying beetle that will eat its way out through the bark and emerge to fly off to another mature lodgepole pine, or Engelmann spruce if that is its specialty, there to repeat the process at a logarithmic progression.

            And those pitchy riddled trunks are just the obvious mark of the dance of death through the forests. If you are out skiing or snowshoeing among the winter-dormant aspen, the signature tree of the Southern Rockies forest, it will be harder to see the dead forest look spreading there; it won’t even be so obvious once the trees are back in leaf – no vast slopes of red death. But foresters have noticed unusual patches of aspen mortality too over the past five years, in as much as ten percent of the aspen stands at lower elevations.

            I spent a day out in some of those patches of apparently dying aspens with Region Two forest pathologist Roy Mask and a crew of interns, doing an in-depth analysis (about two feet deep, in fact, to look at root death, among other things) of the stands. They find there all the usual suspects that are always nibbling away at aspens – beetles, borers, caterpillars, cankers, fungi, rots, gall flies, blights – but none in such massive infestations as the beetles that are running rampant in the conifers. The trees just seem to be giving up.


            What is happening in the forests of the Rockies is nothing unusual or “unnatural” in the specific instance of individual trees. In the great daisy chain of life, everything has other things eating on it, feeding off of it – more often than not, some specialized insect like the pine bark beetles or the spruce bark beetles or the spruce budworms or the aspen bark beetle or poplar borer. These eaters are always present in the forest, but are usually only killing their hosts in a small percentage of trees in a healthy forest.

            Environmentalists – concerned about the kind of radical surgery America’s forest managers sometimes prescribe for disease outbreaks (analogous in human terms to amputating limbs to cure hangnails) – point out this “naturalness” and argue that the best thing to do is to let the infestations run their course. Naturally.

            But most foresters don’t agree, and I don’t either: this outbreak is not “natural” in the usual order of life and death in the forests. The little eaters are always present, yes, and there have been major outbreaks in specific forest stands, even over whole forests in natural drought cycles. But there has never in historical time been an outbreak that attacked the entire Rocky Mountain chain, the whole North American cordillera like the current infestation. Other things are going on today – and all of them implicate us humans.

            Foresters have identified three probable causal factors for this massive outbreak:

·    The easiest to call a “natural” occurrence is a decade-long drought: the whole western part of North America has generally been in a drought situation over the past decade. Different parts of the western U.S. and Canada have had relief at different times over that decade, but overall, it has been a dry time for North American forests, even in some of the more humid regions of the east. Subnormal water resources mean that trees have less pitch flowing in their cambium – the living, growing part of the tree, just below the bark. When trees have plenty of water to suck up as pitch, they are able to “pitch out” a beetle assault –  literally wash the bugs out of the tree and leave them too gummed up to fly on to another tree. But when the water resources are reduced, the ability of the trees to protect themselves with pitch is also reduced.

·    A second factor contributing to the outbreak of forest disease is warmer weather: all the years from 1998 through 2006 are among the 25 warmest years on record. This affects the forests in two ways: First, extreme cold is another friend of the trees and enemy of the insects. If the bugs have managed to penetrate the trees, a cold spell with temperatures in the minus 30s kills off most of the maggoty grubs eating their way from the larval state to the pupal state – especially if the cold spell comes early in the winter; the closer the larvae get to the pupal state, the less vulnerable they are to the cold. And the winters of the past decade have been warmer on average than over any comparable period of time for recorded history (a century or less in most places). A long serious cold spell in late November or early December could significantly diminish the infestation in western forests, but most of the North American Cordillera has not had that kind of weather for quite a while. People in western Colorado who are unenthusiastic about population growth complain about the need for a “cleansing winter” – one long enough and cold enough to drive away a lot of the new people who think they have moved to paradise. That kind of a winter would also be cleansing for the forests, but it just isn’t happening.
         A second effect of general climatic warming, even of fractions of degrees, is increased evaporation from soils and evapotranspiration from trees; this renders even normal precipitation to be drought-like to plants and seriously exacerbates the impact of any degree of drought.

·    The final factor in this “perfect storm” of causes definitely involves human intervention, and that’s the cumulative consequences of a century of fire suppression as an unyielding management policy – even after foresters began to realize it was a bad policy when implemented uncritically.
         In the current stage of forest evolution in the so-called Temperate Zone, fire is an essential part of the carbon cycle that drives all carbon-based life. Woody plants don’t rot fast enough in the cool dry regions of our western mountains to keep carbon gases and solids circulating through the life cycle, so the forests have come to depend on the rapid oxidation by fire for the “death-and-resurrection” side of the carbon cycle to catch up to the life side. Suppressing forest fires is thus kind of like “conquering cancer” would be for humans, creating a new social problem by solving an old disease problem: the forests have become heavily overstocked with old trees made vulnerable by both their density and their demand on the resources they need. Too many trees make even normal precipitation drought-like for the individual trees.
         As a member of a “hotshot team” back in the 1970s – mercenaries fighting forest fires for the Forest Service – I learned quickly that the only fires we could put out were the little fires that were actually “cleaning up” the forests, burning the litter on the forest floor and torching some dead or dying trees. We couldn’t touch the big fires that went through the forest trees in a hundred foot high wall of flame, and had to just try to stay out of their way.
         We knew, and I’m sure the Forest Service guys out there supervising us knew, that we should have been nudging the little fires along, helping them out (as sometimes we did, for economic rather than environmental reasons), so the forest would be less vulnerable to the big fires. But the Forest Service guys had their permanent order, all fires controlled and extinguished as quickly as possible. Which was why our crew once actually spent a late October morning up Soap Creek near Gunnison, mopping up a little spruce-fir fire in 3-4 inches of new snow, peering through the snowstorm for little smokes to pee on: our supervisor was a young careerist who was afraid to go back to the office without reporting that the fire was fully controlled.

            The first two of these factors, the droughty conditions and warmer temperatures, can indeed be considered “natural climate fluctuations,” if you’ve had your head buried in the sand for the last four or five years. But the science community overwhelmingly imputes human causation to the correlation between a warmer drier climate and the fact that we have raised the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to the highest levels discernible over the past several hundred thousand years. Some environmental organizations seem to want to have it both ways: they are happy to agree on the one hand the changing global climate is human-induced – but on the other hand, want us to accept as “natural” the insect infestation that this human-induced climate change has unleashed.

            The sad irony in all this is the way the Dead Forest marks the centennial decade of the United States Forest Service and its confident promise to the nation a century ago, to replace an era of mindless forest use and abuse with a new era of conservation that would yield “the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest time.” The Forest Service, in the balance, has done much good in the forests; just the act of conserving such a huge acreage of valuable forest land for more “scientific” management was a huge step toward a sane society.

            But in retrospect, we can certainly see a fatal measure of unconscious arrogance in the progressivism of the early 20th century – and not just in forest policies, although the decision to eradicate wildfire from the forests certainly exemplifies that unconscious arrogance. We beat Mao to the idea that the 20th century was to be a Great Leap Forward; it was to be what American philosopher Charles Beard called an age of “science, technology and rationalized economy.” But the exuberant balls-out industrial growth, the cow-flop sprawl of sub-urban cities, the transportation and energy policies that unwittingly pumped up the greenhouse gases, the whole hog-butcher-for-the-world mentality, and the overweening belief that we could find a technological fix for everything we might encounter – all these things have worked together to give us the Dead Forest at the century mark.

            At any rate, to the extent that we view human impacts as outside the “natural” flow of things – the current massive plague of bugs and other tree-killers riding this tide of human-induced changes can hardly be considered “natural”. But if this is, then, a manmade problem that us responsible humans must address – what can we do about it? And are we doing it?

            There are several ways to address the problem of the still-green tree whose pitch-dotted trunk shows it to be full of the maggots that will emerge in the summer as beetles to further spread the infestation. To stop or slow the infestation, such trees need to be cut and removed from the forest, or burned in place, before the beetle hatch happens. Mature trees not yet infested can be sprayed with an insecticide. Et cetera, et cetera.

            But there’s an awful lot of infested trees in the Dead Forest. It might be possible to stop the infestations with a few thousand spotters, cutters, burners and sprayers spreading out through the millions of acres of infested forest in the Rockies, during the winter and spring before the beetle hatch, probably requiring fleets of snowcats. And maybe fleets of helicopters would be able to manage the top-to-bottom spraying required to protect uninfected trees. It would probably cost at least several hundred dollars per acre of infested land (several thousand if we use the helicopters). But there are now close to three-fourths of a million acres of impacted forest in Colorado alone. And the Colorado General Assembly has allocated one million dollars in matching funds to alleviating this situation – including the match, then, about two bucks and six bits per acre. “I’m going to admit it isn’t much,” conceded the state senate president. Yep. And the federal government – which has other wars to fight, remember – never has enough money to invest in forest health. We might as well pray for a miraculous swarm of woodpeckers, like the gulls that saved the Mormons from the grasshoppers.

            So basically, whether we judge the infestation to be natural or unnatural, it comes to the same: it’s going to “be allowed to” run its course, like the environmentalists suggest, and the main mitigation effort is trying to figure out how to deal with the potentially holocaustic consequences of wildfire in vast stands of dead trees. The Forest Service has teamed up with state and county-level foresters, land managers and private property owners to take out dead and dying trees in “the urban interface” – the suburbs and exurbs that have crept out into the edge of the forests – in order to reduce the threat of property damage from the big fires that seem inevitable. They are also clearing out all the trees along roads, to turn them into firebreaks – and ultimately emergency escape routes for the evacuations that could result from those fires. Tree care companies in the mountain towns are harvesting a bonanza, spraying vulnerable “pet trees” in the urban interface, and charging as much as $80 per tree to remove the casualties.

            The Forest Service is trying to salvage as much of the dead timber as possible for lumber, but they are hampered in at least the Southern Rockies by the fact that there is only one remaining large sawmill left in the whole region, in Montrose, Colorado – almost a day’s drive from the worst infestations. The cost of land in resort regions makes its purchase for industrial purposes like local sawmills prohibitive – not to mention zoning and noise regulations in the “second-home zone”. There’s the further fact that the beetles carry a fungus that permeates the first couple inches of wood with a bluish stain; it doesn’t hurt the strength of the lumber, but the “blue-stain boards” are unattractive to many buyers.

            The Forest Service is also trying to figure how to use “controlled burns” to reduce the mega-fire danger. But given the magnitude of the problem and the fact that the natural fire regime for lodgepole pines (the tree most impacted by the infestation) is intense stand-replacing fires, controlling a burn in the Dead Forest is not easy.

            Meanwhile, the infestation will eventually run its course; there will come a summer when most of the pine and spruce beetles boring out of their reddening trees will be unable to find any remaining mature trees alive within their range, and their specialized appetites will be their undoing: wanting only to highgrade big old mature trees, the bugs will ignore all the young trees that are already growing up around the dead trees, and the plague will peter out even as the forest returns. Bad fires will happen, or they won’t; if they do, the new young trees will perish with the old dead ones, but the fire itself will sow the seeds of the new forest in the lodgepole region, and either way, the devastation will end, and it will be time to move beyond the Dead Forest to the Next Forest.

            That’s actually the way some foresters, public and private, are talking about it: The Next Forest, capital N, capital F. And that’s where we will see whether we’ve learned anything about living with forests or not, after the century in which the best “science, technology and rationalized economy” humankind could muster ended in the Dead Forest.


Part Two:  The Next Forest

The Northern Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative is working toward the Next Forest, with our investment focused on building resilience and reducing the risk of loss to our young trees when large-scale fires move across the landscape. The Cooperative is also generating ideas and working on a sustainable community based forest products industry for Northern Colorado. Local communities have economies that are tied to surrounding forests. All efforts are community based to insure that outcomes are aligned with local community visions.

                              -- From the “Northern Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative” page,

                                 U. S. Forest Service Region Two website (

            That is an interesting paragraph. The Forest Service website shovels a lot of conventional corporate coal, but that’s a diamond in the coal. Read it again. And I will begin to try to tell you why it scares me to death.

            The most interesting aspect of that paragraph is the departure with the past century implied in the emphasis on “community based” ideas and economies “aligned with local community visions.” This is interesting to anyone who has been involved in any discourse with the Forest Service throughout the 20th century, a discourse always framed by the statement, often explicitly uttered: “This is a National Forest, not your local County Forest.”

            Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot, for instance, would never have penned that paragraph. He envisioned an almost priestly elite force of forest manager-scientists; Forest Service rangers historically have been forbidden to participate politically or economically in the communities they serve in, and those hoping to rise through the ranks in the Service have had to move around frequently. No “going native” and getting too interested in local problems, at the expense of the forest’s and nation’s needs.

            I don’t of course imagine that the U. S. Forest Service is going to close its offices and turn the National Forests over to us peasants, on the basis of a visionary paragraph that probably came from closer to the bottom of the Forest Service food chain than the top. But for this paragraph to have appeared at all, on the Forest Service website, suggests that a change might be ripening that began to blossom in the 1970s: an acknowledgement (initially grudging) that many, maybe most of the communities in and around the National Forests have grown up to the point of understanding their forests well enough to maybe live intelligently with them, with a little help from the experts, rather than having to stand by while decisions were being made for and about their forests from above by experts elsewhere.

            I am so impressed by that paragraph, in fact, that I am not even going to go to the Forest Service and give them a chance to start hedging and harrumphing about it; it’s there and I am going to take it at face value, and run with it – and let the Forest Service play defense about it if it insists. A century of top-down management brought us to the Dead Forest; now it’s damn well time to start thinking differently about forests and people, and this is a different way of thinking for the Forest Service.

            But then when I start thinking about the implications of this paragraph – it scares me to death. Despair starts to seep in around the edges when I start to think of everything we have to think of today. I begin to doubt that what god or nature might call “the consciousness project” – that’s us – has a positive future. The more conscious we get about what’s going on, the more impossible things look.

            We cannot, for example, think of the Next Forest as just a discrete forest, an ecological community of plants and animals dominated by trees. We have to think of all the things that environ or surround that forest and affect its chances for success, and ours. And then we have to try to imagine a “local community vision” that somehow encompasses it all… whew. Consider these things, in thinking about the Next Forest:

            First and most obviously “here” is the global climate, which may be changing temporarily or may be changing for a coming geological age, and may be changing a little or a lot. Whether or not it is our fault is probably irrelevant at this point, since the change is already underway and the best we can do from here on out is do or not do the things that will make the changes more or less extreme. This is already affecting the forests of the world beyond our ability to prevent it; it is a problem in adaptation.

            As things stand now, climate change is probably going to cost us the aspens at low elevations in the Southern Rockies. They have been contesting that range with the sage and grasses for a long time, but the warming trend gives the field to the plants that like it hotter and drier. The pine forests will grow back in the montane region – and maybe extend their range a little higher on the sunny sides of the mountains. But if the winters remain warm and summer warmth continues to dry out their soils, will the beetles ever allow the pines, especially the lodgepole, to mature? Maybe they’ll be replaced, in their lower reaches, by the more drought-tolerant pinion pine and juniper. And the spruce-fir subalpine forest – will it ride the warmth a little higher into the alpine tundra? Or will the increasing violence of extreme weather events make the spruce and fir yield its exposed upper reaches – and also cause more blowdowns in it that will bring on its pests?

            All we can say for sure is that climate change is going to cause changes in our relationship with the Next Forest – in ways we can’t know till we see what is actually happening in the forests.

            But there is another “environmental change” imminent that is probably going to have an even greater impact on our relationship with the Next Forest – and with everything else too – and we are still in serious denial about this one. This change is going to happen in the economic and political environment surrounding our forests and communities, and is the coming “drought” in cheap fossil energy.

            This is not the straw man that’s put out there: “We’re running out of oil.” We know there is a lot of fossil energy left, in the form of oil, natural gas, coal, tar sands, oil shale, et cetera, and a lot of “renewable” energy too. But none of it is cheap, in the sense that petroleum and natural gas have been easy and cheap this past century, with hundreds of energy units produced for each unit of energy invested in production. For the future, we are going to be depending on energy resources that, at best, yield fewer than ten units of energy for every unit invested. Much of it, like oil shale, will yield less than five units, and some of the renewables like ethanol and hydrogen are just “energy carriers,” converting a unit of one kind of energy (biomass) into a unit of a more usable kind of energy (liquid fuel) with no energy gain at all. The prices of energy will rise accordingly.

            This “changing energy climate” is going to change everything, including the way we relate to forests. Virtually every aspect of modern life is rooted somehow in cheap fossil energy, mostly in cheap petroleum. The food we eat, from the fertilizers and pumped water that grow it to the fleets of trucks and trains and planes that deliver it, is basically a petroleum product.  More and more of the building products in our homes – again all brought in by truck and train from somewhere else – are wood composites glued together with petroleum products or petroleum-based plastics. Transportation costs alone – once they climb into the $10-20 per gallon range – will force the “local community” to become a lot more local in terms of food production, building materials and energy resources.

            But that brings up a third “environmental challenge” the local community of the Next Forest faces today: that is the extent to which the political and economic climate of the 20th century essentially did away with the local community as a functioning political economy capable of producing and distributing anything useful to its own residents. We chuckled about the centralized planning of the Soviet Union and its “Five Year Plans,” but we essentially engaged in the same degree, if not quite the same kind, of centralization of all economic and political activity around the great-state ideology of corporate capitalism and its urban industrialism. With “economy of scale” and “standardization” as our marching cries, we essentially turned over all production of everything to increasingly centralized entities. Local communities that were once semi-self-sufficient in the production of food, building materials and energy resources are today just terminals for the shipping out of raw resources (cattle, coal, petroleum, ores, et cetera) and the shipping in of processed and manufactured goods and services (beef, electricity, gasoline, manufactured products, et cetera). Or in the case of the resort town – the shipping in of people with money in their pockets to consume our scenic and recreational resources in situ.

            What we call the “local economy” today in most communities outside of the metropolitan areas consists mostly of retailers who display and sell the goods produced elsewhere; the local knowledge for food and energy production is barely still alive and is not generally known. Aside from the one big sawmill in Montrose, Colorado, a few remnant “ranch mills” here and there, and some local suppliers of firewood and fence poles, there is no “community based forest products industry” sustainable or otherwise, and there aren’t many people left who would know how to put one together.

            The education facilities – what we used to call “rural schools” before the term became pejorative – where an intelligent society might have kept such knowledge alive have, for the past century been turned over to preparing the local kids to leave their community, for more lucrative careers in the centralized political economy of corporate capitalism. The rural people of America taxed themselves to prepare their own children for export, along with their cows, coal, et cetera.

            So – put all that environmental context together, and it looks like the Next Forest as described on the Forest Service website – all that local community based stuff – will be emerging in an environment that is politically and economically unfriendly as well as physically unknowable, with the likelihood of bad weather on all fronts. Conditions could hardly be worse. Welcome to the 21st century. And now it’s time to form a “local community vision” for our 21st century relationship with that New Forest.

            Is this is a test? Is the Forest Service saying – okay! You didn’t like the way we were doing it; you think you guys can do it better? Go for it!


            Having probably pissed off most of my friends in the Forest Service by now, I’m going to go ahead and piss off most of my environmentalist friends by suggesting that we ecofreaks have become part of the Dead Forest problem too, and will probably have to change our thinking for the Next Forest.

            Thanks to a cultural environment and education indoctrination that taught us nothing practical about how to survive in the world since benevolent corporations would be supplying our every need or desire, we thought that what we mostly wanted from the National Forests was for them to stand around forever looking pretty.

            And after the Forest Service had, in its unconscious technocratic arrogance, corrupted its own forest science after the 1950s in order to get out the Congressionally-mandated cut so every American could afford a sub-urban house, the environmental reaction set in and the preservationists finally got their say, and to a remarkable extent, their way. The advent of the Environmental Impact Study made it possible for just about any public lands timber cut to be held up or stopped, and a lot of trees were kept from untimely deaths for utilitarian purposes in order to stand around looking pretty until they died a natural death, or suffered death by fire, which is probably the same thing.

            But it is as possible to allow a type of uncritical ideological arrogance to run amok in stopping forest management activities as it is to have uncritical ideological arrogance running amok on the management side. And a few decades of mismanagement is not cured by a few decades of no management; put the two together, and you get the Dead Forest. Dan Kemmis, founder of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and one of the more aware western leaders in moving toward the Next Forest, analyzed this situation at length in his book, This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West.

            What’s going to be hard for environmentalists to face up to is the intensity of management we are going to have to bring to the Next Forest if the next generations of humans and the Next Forest are going to survive together, because of two things. One is the nature and magnitude of the environmental changes, already discussed, that we’ve brought on the forests and ourselves. We’ve been able to stop a lot of “harvesting” in the National Forests in the Rockies – to the extent that the forest products industries in the Southern Rockies have virtually disappeared – because cheap fuel has enabled us to ship lumber in from the Northwest, the Southeast and Canada. Transportation costs in the not-distant future will make that, first, prohibitive, and probably eventually impossible. If we are going to have building materials at all, we are going to have to go back to producing them relatively locally.

            And the other reason why we are going to have to manage the forests intensively is because we refuse to “manage ourselves.” If upwards of 90 percent of us would simply disappear, then we could return to the presumed golden age of “letting nature take its course” with us as part of it. But there aren’t many volunteers for disappearing; we’ve got some good wars and famines going that are knocking our swarm down a little, but we keep trying to end or prevent those; and every time we get a good disease going, we declare war on it and keep it from helping nature take its course. We refuse to manage ourselves.

            So basically, if we let nature take its slow adaptive course in the forests, but continue to refuse to let nature take its course with us, then we will begin to devastate the forests again when we can no longer get cheap goods from Canada. If we are going to truly try to realize the goal of “having (most of) our forest and eating (some of) it too,” then we are going to have a practice a new kind of really intensive management.

            But it doesn’t have to be “intensive management” in the sense of the “devastation by management” some of the National Forests experienced through the industrial “timber beast” era; it could be, should be more comparable to the kind of “intensive management” a gardener brings to a garden. A relatively new term that’s often used in such instances is “adaptive management.” This is a new way of saying things like “trial and error” and “seat of the pants”: acknowledging the complexity of ecosystems, we try something, see how it works, then change what we’re doing as soon as we start to see all the unforeseen consequences and implications of what we tried. This requires all of us ideologues to evolve a little, transcend our own ideologies and enlarge our souls accordingly.

            Become gardeners, in short, gardeners of all growing things within our ken, knowing what’s there, what’s ready, and how to get it out without harming what’s there but not ready. It is the only alternative to full-out locustlike, first-come-first-served, neoindustrial corporate devastation. And if we choose it, not all of it will be new; some of it has been happening on the margins of the industrial corporate culture forever, recessive genes in the social body.

             For example – I spent several seasons running the saw for a little sawmill in the valley of the North Fork of the Gunnison River, surrounded by the Gunnison National Forest. Our mill depended on what the Forest Service called “clean-up sales” – small cuts in blowdown areas, or places where bugs were becoming a presence, or places starting to look nastily fire-prone, with just enough surrounding healthy trees to make it a passable deal for a mill. Arguably – and I would so argue – the forests were better off for the timber cuts that supplied our mill. There were two other small mills in the valley doing the same thing.

            But to find the areas where small cuts would improve the health of the forest required Forest Service people to spend a lot of time out getting to know their forest, which wasn’t always the case, given budget issues, loss of timber funds from stalled sales, the cuts of the Reagan Revolution, and other factors. As a result, there weren’t always enough small sales to keep the three small mills operating – although economics and political pressure decreed that there were always large sales, clearcuts or “seed cuts” in the healthy timber, for the big mills then operating in the Montrose-to-Delta strip.

            But one has to think – if there were still three small mills in every valley in the Southern Rockies, and enough foresters to find and map clean-up sales for all of them – would the Forest Service have been able to get enough infected timber out of the forests to have kept ahead of the beetles? Maybe, maybe not – global warming is really big, and is going to change the forests, bugs or not, and that’s what we’ve got to learn to adapt to. It’s environment. Nonetheless, there is an intensity of management at a small scale that could have made a better transition to the Next Forest with less of the traumatic Dead Forest.

            I’m also remembering that elsewhere on the Gunnison National Forest, an old forest on the Taylor River District, Tom Eberhardt, was designing small random-looking, fuzzy-edged cuts in lodgepole pine that mimicked what he perceived to be the “mosaic” pattern in some healthy lodgepole stands prone to lightning strikes – what would occur when lightning caused fires from year to year that would run up a hillside, then get rained out on the downside of the hill: the result was a lot of small stands of different ages, so the bugs might find one stand that suited their taste but wouldn’t get a whole mountainside. Working the same district was another Gunnison National Forest forester, Jerry Chonka, who has become one of the Forest Service’s most experienced controlled-burn experts nationally; he also works on “mechanical thinning” methods for the urban interface that imitate the healthier actions of fire. Is it entirely coincidence that the beetles have not yet come over the Divide into the Gunnison watershed yet? Well, maybe next year they will be there too. But it will be interesting to see how Eberhardt’s and Chonka’s efforts work out.

            That’s what I’m thinking of when I suggest we need management at the intensity of “gardening” for our National Forests – forest workers who spend a long time getting to know their place, and working on ways to take care of it. Wilderness lovers and naturomantics won’t like that idea. And it’s not part of the technocratic heritage of the Forest Service either. Gifford Pinchot was proud of his European training in forestry, but failed to import one of the cornerstones of the European system: the local community forester, who grew up with the forest and the community, and spent his life there, and gave a replacement (often his son) a long on-the-job training so he would know it as well. Pinchot opted for the scientist-manager, and didn’t want his boys getting too intimate with their places. It needs to be different for the Next Forest.

            But how will we run a local community based forest products industry without petroleum? No diesel for the mills, the dozers, the skidders and trucks? Well, think back – America was built, through the 17th and 18th centuries, entirely with water-powered sawmills; aren’t we smart enough to recover that technology? That’s a serious question, when you look at the extent to which we moderns have lost all the grandfather-and-grandmother knowledge of how to do anything truly useful Assuredly we wouldn’t be able to crank out the same volume of lumber with non-fossil energy – which means some of us will have to have settle for smaller houses – but some of us won’t want to be paying to heat a midlife manor anyway.

            Once I start thinking of this stuff, all kinds of things come to mind – I remember a late-20th century sawmill I saw in Washington that used computers to maximize the lumber output from small logs. So imagine a water-powered sawmill with a solar-powered computer analyzing and setting up the logs, partially compensating from the loss in volume with maximum efficiency. It won’t cut any million feet a year, but it will be sustainable, and maybe we’ll have think more about straw or adobe walls and leave the wood for the roof.

            And out in the woods, getting the timber? We don’t want big roads there anyway, right? So I’m remembering a Montana study, thirty or forty years ago, that compared a rubber-tire skidder, a farm tractor and a horse team for selective logging in lodgepole pine (bringing out the buggy trees). Guess which method won, in the board-foot-output for energy-input comparison. Of course, it’s easier to operate a tractor or skidder than a horse – you have to show respect for the horse and treat it right. It’s also slower – but that might be okay since the sawyers will be using the old crosscut saw rather than a chainsaw. Can we go back to that kind of thing?

            Everything will have to slow down a little. Well, hot damn.

            I don’t know, finally, what to say. To look at the challenges presented by the visejaws of global climate change on the one hand, a huge energy transition on the other, in the unfriendly environment of a great-state political economy created by, for and of the corporate capitalists, it looks overwhelming. But go wander in the woods, look at the young green of the Next Forest starting up among the remains of the Dead Forest, and little things do look possible…. Out there, the age of science, technology and rationalized economy is over as a top-down centralized megastrategy – but when those priorities are mixed with some common sense and traditional knowledge, down on the ground where we and the trees live, they might work better. Some of it might even be fun. So welcome to the Next Forest, one of those terrifying futures you might actually come to love.


Thanks to Roy Mask and his colleagues at the Forest Service Region Two Forest Science Center in Gunnison, and to forester Carey Green on the White River National Forest in Minturn, for specific help with this analysis.