Decline of the Aspen by Club 20

Review by Ed Quillen

Forestry – June 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Decline of the Aspen
Special Report on the Health of National Forests in Colorado
by the Club 20 Research Foundation
Published in 1998 by Club 20
P.O. Box 550
Grand Junction CO 81502

SMOKEY BEAR is the aspen tree’s worst enemy. Aspen love sunshine and open, disturbed land — the sort of zone produced by a forest fire. Minimize the forest fires, and you reduce the places where young aspen groves can thrive.

Meanwhile, the aspen provide shade for evergreen saplings, which will grow and eventually crowd out the aspen by taking away their sunshine.

In other words, our forests are dynamic, not static. Fires have occurred for millions of years, long before matches were invented, and the forests have evolved reactions to the combustion. Fire-suppression does not preserve a mountain forest like some outdoor museum diorama. Instead, fire-suppression will, over time, produce a different forest — one heavy with fir and spruce, bereft of aspen.

Why worry about aspen, though? For one thing, healthy forests are diverse forests. For another, aspen are economically important to Colorado, not only as wood, but also for the millions of dollars spent every fall when people visit the mountains to see the changing colors.

If fires aren’t popular, and we want aspen on the hillsides, we can remove the evergreens and produce good aspen habitat with logging — small clear-cuts work quite well. But there are political, æsthetic, and economic problems with that approach; one result is that dozens of small sawmills have gone out of business, and aren’t around to bid on timber sales.

Thus the evergreens continue to grow, overwhelming the aspen.

In a nutshell, those are the issues examined in Decline of the Aspen, issued by the Club 20 Research Foundation earlier this year. After an examination of issues ranging from water run-off to federal budgets (all of which is quite readable for the interested non-expert), the study concludes with a proposal that sounds rather sensible to me.

Instead of haggling over various management methods at public hearings, those involved should define what kind of forest they want to see: “Should there be aspen trees, and conifers, and open meadows? What should that mix be? Should there be both dense brush and open understories, and in what mix? … Should there be old decaying aspen trees, and young healthy ones, and some in between?…

“The follow-up implementation of a forest plan reached in this manner would become, then, a matter for forest experts. The public-interest groups, instead of pretending expertise on logging, mining, ranching, gas exploration, or travel management, should help define the forest in a real sense. The foresters would then determine how best to achieve the desired plant stands and ecosystems. They would be freer to do so in an environment where the public had already determined what it wanted from the forest. And they would perhaps be freer of the constant challenges to every single action, which plague the current system.”

To some degree, this appears to reek of human arrogance — designing forests to suit our desires. But so much that we do anyway, from walking in the woods to adopting air-quality regulations, affects the management of our forests. As this 40-page book points not, doing nothing is also a management decision.

Perhaps these decisions should be made consciously, based on desired results, rather than being based on process, like whether a comma was missing from a scoping statement. As the public, we own our national forests, and with ownership comes responsibility. Decline of the Aspen offers new ways to exercise that responsibility.

It’s a good start on a dialogue that needs to begin in our mountain counties where Smokey Bear is the largest landlord.

–Ed Quillen