A logging operation for trees killed by the beetle outbreak has begun on Middle Mountain, north of Vallecito, which is expected to continue for the next three years.
Joshua Merril-Exton, a timber sale administrator for the San Juan National Forest, said the salvage sale covers an approximate area of 515 acres, but it’s difficult to determine just how many trees will be cut in the process.
Equipment for the operation moved in last week, Merril-Exton said, and the public should be cautious of logging trucks that will use Forest Service Road 724 and County Road 501. He said he expects at least six truck loads a day, possibly more.
Trucks will, ultimately, travel down through Bayfield and Durango, and up U.S. Highway 550 over to Montrose.
Montrose Forest Products won the bid to log the patch of forest earlier this year. Merril-Exton said Montrose Forest Products has hired a contractor to conduct the logging and hauling, though he did not immediately know the name of that company.
A representative with Montrose Forest Products was not available for comment Thursday. The Forest Service has said the logs will be milled into dimensional lumber and studs.
The area being logged was hit during the devastating beetle infestation that has killed Engelmann spruce trees across Southwest Colorado. It’s also part of the Forest Service’s recent initiative to bring logging back to the San Juan Mountains.
Logging in Southwest Colorado has lagged for at least the past decade for a variety of reasons, including lack of demand for lumber; the 2008 recession and its impact to the housing industry; and the bankruptcy of Montrose Forest Product, the region’s largest mill, in 2011.
But the Forest Service, in part under the direction of the Trump administration, has been tasked with rebuilding its timber program.
Last year, a logging operation started north of Bayfield, on about 650 acres along Beaver Meadows Road, which is expected to harvest over the next couple of years about 52,000 spruce trees that also died from beetle kill.
In a previous interview, Matt Janowiak, a former district ranger, said he doesn’t expect any large-scale, clear-cutting timber operations in the San Juan National Forest. Instead, timber cutting will be a more low-intensity project on the land.
“That’s pretty much how we’re going forward,” Janowiak said.
Controversy about logging in the San Juans reached a fever pitch in the early 1990s, resulting in the Forest Service establishing the “Roadless Rule” in 2001, which prevents road construction and timber harvesting on nearly 58.5 million acres of national forest land across the country.
Merril-Exton said the logging on Middle Mountain is a bit more technical than the operation on Beaver Meadows Road, mostly because the topography is more difficult and the road is more populated by off-road vehicles.
“We, basically, went after all the acres that were feasible and available in that area,” he said.
Operations on Middle Mountain are expected to cease when snow depths get too high and return once the area is dry from snowmelt.
While the project will remove dead trees, the effectiveness of logging for reducing wildfire risk is a source of debate.
George Wuerthner, an ecologist and author who has written extensively about fire ecology, said in a previous interview that large wildfires burn in extreme fire conditions (drought, high temperatures, low humidity, high winds), regardless of logging or thinning of the forest.
“The majority of all fires are very small, burning a few acres or less,” he said. “It is the large ones we’re concerned about where a lot of evidence suggests thinning, logging and particularly sales don’t have much influence on the outcome.”
Merril-Exton said logging on Beaver Meadows Road has picked up in the past year, and another harvest on Wolf Creek remains active, in its third year. He said another sale on a different area of Beaver Meadows Road is expected to go out for bid in the next couple of years.