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By the time we were placed on pre-evacuation notice, we could already see the pyrocumulus clouds rising higher than 30,000 feet. Although they looked a little like rain clouds, no precipitation was forthcoming. The hot, dry weather and incessant winds were driving the Spring Creek Fire east, turning overgrown forests into a seemingly unstoppable inferno — bearing down on our homestead. The fire was still miles away, but it looked like it was nearly upon us. We began packing our essential and irreplaceable items, ready to flee for our lives.
Fortunately, the fire never reached our homestead. Ultimately, the Spring Creek Fire consumed more than 108,000 acres, making it the third-largest wildfire in Colorado’s recorded history at that time. Two years later, it’s the state’s fifth largest. If we had evacuated, we wouldn’t be leaving our homestead entirely to fate. We were in the third phase of a forest restoration project. Would our land have survived the Spring Creek Fire? Hard to say. That fire was extreme; the conditions were perfect for catastrophic spread. But now that our restoration project is completed, I can say with some certainty that our forest could not only survive, but likely thrive, through the more “normal” low-to-medium-intensity wildfires we see in our area.
What Is Forest Restoration?
Forest restoration is returning a neglected forest to a balanced, healthy state. Landowners have several compelling reasons to embark on a forest restoration project. For us, wildfire mitigation topped the list. Wildfires are a global problem, but with necessarily local solutions. You can improve your forest and realize tangible benefits — even if wildfire never threatens.
Like much of the western United States, our land in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado was overgrown and unhealthy. Shortsighted forestry practices over the past 100-plus years have involved cutting out the best high-grade timber while leaving smaller or more poorly formed trees behind. With the higher canopy removed, young trees grew in densely, forming “dog-hair stands” of skinny trees, all the same age and species. This in turn has dramatically increased the likelihood of tree diseases. In our case, dwarf mistletoe infections became epidemic in the ponderosa pines. Dwarf mistletoe is a parasite that weakens and can ultimately kill the host. The parasite itself is barely noticeable. What you can see are malformed “witches’ broom” shoots on infected trees. This parasite reproduces by explosively ejecting seeds in midsummer, which stick to adjacent trees. Because of this unusual reproductive method, overly dense forests facilitate rapid spread. While a tree can occasionally be saved by pruning infected limbs, the only sure way to stop dwarf mistletoe from spreading further is to remove infected trees.
In our semi-arid environment, frequent, low-grade forest fire was the natural control. These fires, typically caused by lightning, would regularly burn out undergrowth and most of the young trees competing for a piece of sky. Older, thick-barked ponderosa pines and other fire-adapted species could survive these blazes, even prospering from the release of nutrients following the burn. Historical photos of our area reveal comparatively sparse forests comprised of well-spaced mature trees. Enough young trees would survive to maintain the continuity of the forest. As the area became more populated, settlers began suppressing the fires, not understanding the critical role of fire in the natural ecosystem. This allowed the forests to grow too thick. Competition for limited resources led to less-healthy trees and parasite and disease outbreaks. Now, when a forest fire starts, it becomes much more intense and difficult to extinguish. Because of this, efforts at suppression grew ever more extreme — a vicious cycle.
Climate change is now exacerbating the situation further. In our area, this means hotter summers, less precipitation, and earlier snowmelt. We now have the choice between ignoring these effects or adapting to them. My wife, Amy, and I have chosen the latter.
While we had long been aware of the condition of our 36 acres of forest land, we struggled to gain much of a toehold early on. Although we pecked away at forestry, competing priorities always relegated that effort to the back burner. In 2014, we discovered a federal assistance program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The program provides funding to encourage landowners to address environmental issues on their property.
The EQIP process begins with developing a forest management plan. We wanted healthier forests with increased carrying capacity for deer and other wildlife, and, of course, reduced wildfire risk. We worked closely with the Colorado State Forest Service to develop our management plan, which cost $1,300. Keen on seeing these types of projects move forward, our local soil and water conservation district covered half the cost.
In our area, the Stonewall Fire Protection District has a forest fire mitigation crew. We had the crew start with some of our most mistletoe-infested forest. We had two areas that were about 80 percent infested. The crew cut down a lot of trees in those areas — near clear-cut in some cases. We had them chip up the slash from the first 5 acres, resulting in about 100 cubic yards of mulch — a veritable mountain of mulch that we’re still using in our various gardening and horticultural efforts.
If you’re cutting hardwoods or you live in a more densely populated area, you can expect more money for the wood you harvest. We kept all the larger Gambel oak (a scrub oak) for our own woodstoves, along with what initially appeared to be a lifetime supply of pine and fir. We also intentionally kept some of the more accessible areas in dense forest as future woodlots. We burn a couple of cords of firewood per year, so we wanted to ensure we had an adequate supply into the foreseeable future.
Our Restoration Approach
We would typically go through a given section three or four times. The first sweep would take out just the tangled undergrowth and low-quality trees. This allowed us to see the lay of the land better and determine which larger trees we wanted to take out. Next, we removed the diseased, malformed, and split-top trees. Once the forest was properly thinned, we then went through with our limbing saw, removing all branches to about 10 to 15 feet above-grade. After each sweep, we gathered up the resulting slash. We burned most of the slash when conditions were right, in open areas that had been previously cleared. Be careful! It would be easy to burn down the forest while trying to make it more fire-resistant. It happens, even with professionals.
Prior to taking over the project, we would comment on how long the mitigation crew would take to get through an area. Once Amy and I were entirely responsible for it, the reason for that became abundantly clear. It’s hard work with many facets: felling, limbing, bucking, dealing with mountains of resulting slash. Every piece of wood is handled perhaps 8 to 10 times before it finally ends up in the woodstove. Don’t get me wrong; this is satisfying work. Our home and outbuildings are all heated through the Colorado winter with a combination of passive solar design and woodburning stoves. Forest restoration is an exercise in sustainability — with a strong emphasis on the word “exercise.” This was a transformative project, for us as well as the land.
You won’t get rich doing it yourself, but it gives you a good excuse to hang out in the woods. We now know our land intimately. There’s no nook or cranny we didn’t step foot on. This is landscaping on a grand scale. Amy and I discussed what we wanted to see in an area, and then made it happen. It’s empowering and satisfying in a way that transcends the work itself.
Doing forestry work reminds us that we aren’t separate from nature — we’re part of it. We’ve truly become stewards of our land. Our efforts improved the forest’s health and made it a far better environment for wildlife. We discovered micro-environments we hadn’t known were there. Since promoting age and species diversity was part of our management plan, we’ve planted other species, such as limber pines and bristlecone pines. Both are slow-growing but hardy species, capable of prospering in our drought-prone environment. Indeed, as the climate continues to change, they may prove to be better-suited to the environment in the future than the current forest of ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. Although we’ll never sit under the shade of these slow-growing trees, they can potentially live for thousands of years. Our forest represents a living legacy.
Other tactics can be used for restoration. Our property is steep, with lots of rock outcrops and boulders. In this type of terrain, a hand crew works best, but is also the slowest and potentially most expensive methodology. In some cases, a more mechanized approach may be more cost-effective — and far faster. One of our neighbors whose property has a less extreme landform hired a forestry professional who subcontracted out to a company that used a “hydro-axe” to transform the property in a fraction of the time. These machines are awesome to see in action, and a viable alternative for some folks.
A forest restoration project of this type is never truly finished. Natural environments are dynamic; vegetation grows. The real goal is to get on top of it and then maintain to whatever extent seems appropriate. In our case, we mow about 8 acres annually. This keeps the fast-growing Gambel oak from taking over. Eventually, we expect the grasses to become the dominant vegetation in these open areas.
On another 10 acres, we’ll keep the undergrowth cut using a handheld brush saw. This is a rotating task roughly following the original phasing of the project. About 2 acres of our land is still wild and untouched, and will remain that way; it’s simply too steep and difficult to manage. All the remaining forest land, we maintain as needed. Nature selects for us. When a tree dies or falls, we come along to clean up the mess. Some dead trees, we leave standing for birds and other wildlife to use. We also intentionally left some patches of forest too dense. This will be our future firewood.
One of the goals of our forest restoration project was to create a mix of open woodland interspersed with open meadows. This is ideal habitat for wildlife. The open canopy encourages the growth of grasses, forbs, and other feed, while the nearby forest provides cover. This is sometimes called the “edge effect.” We regularly see numerous deer, turkeys, and other critters. We’re happy to share the forest with them.
We’re now engaged in turning the North Fork Ranch Landowners Association, where we live, into a Firewise Community. The Firewise USA program is administered by the National Fire Protection Association, the same folks who produce the National Electrical Code. Obtaining a Firewise designation has numerous advantages. In addition to the physical benefits of restoring a healthy ecosystem, it can also result in lower homeowners insurance, or prevent the cancellation of policies. This is becoming common in places such as California and even Colorado, where the fire loss cost to insurance companies can be in the billions of dollars.
This was one of the most difficult projects we’ve ever undertaken. Sometimes, when I was tired and filthy and my knee was swollen bigger than a grapefruit, I thought we might not get through it. But we persevered, and we’ve now achieved what we sought. The project has also been recognized, first by our local Spanish Peaks-Purgatoire River Conservation District, and then at the state level by the Colorado Association of Conservation Districts. Amy and I were named Conservationists of the Year for 2019 in the small acreage category. This is among all the conservation projects done in all 74 conservation districts in the state. We’re honored to have our project so recognized, but we sure didn’t do it all on our own. Many people were instrumental in making this achievement possible.
Equipment and Safety
To take on a project like this, you’ll need a significant amount of equipment; we used multiple chainsaws, a brush saw, a limbing saw, a trail mower, an ATV, multiple trailers, water tanks and pumps, and, of course, our venerable 1980 F350 work truck. Acquiring this equipment can coast several thousand dollars, so if you don’t already have it, you may want to hire professionals.
Using chainsaws and felling trees are potentially hazardous activities. We treat safety seriously. Amy and I have both been previously certified as Wilderness First Responders. Basically, this means we know how to treat acute injuries until more definitive medical care is available. We always carry a comprehensive first-aid kit, which includes several “maxi pads” in the event of a serious laceration and blood loss. Fortunately, we’ve never had to call on this precaution.
As the primary sawyer, I always wear chaps, steel-toed boots, and eye and ear protection. I often, but not always, wear a hard hat, depending on the type of cutting. Amy uses the same type of protective equipment. Both of us always wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. We lift using proper technique, and when we inevitably get tired, we stop, rest, and hydrate. Not only did we not have any serious accidents during our forest restoration project, but we both feel healthier and more fit because of this physically demanding project.
Tracy Dahl and his wife, Amy, have been living off-grid with solar power for 25 years as they’ve developed their self-built homestead. They grow a significant amount of their own food in three greenhouses and multiple animal-protected growing beds.
Secure basic knowledge for safely and sustainably managing your woodlot in the online workshop “Tree Felling 101,” with Brett McLeod of LogOx. Traditional axe skills, as well as modern felling, limbing, bucking, and skidding (both horse- and human-powered), are demonstrated in this workshop. Particular attention is given to chainsaw techniques to maximize efficiency and overcome tricky situations, such as back-lean and hazard trees. This workshop is part of our “Survival Skills” course. Learn more at Mother Earth News Fair.