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The burning threat to the Sangres

Article by Tom Wolf

Fire – August 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Wildfire is burning in the Wet Mountain Valley. I smell the smoke before I see it. If I were alone here, I might be glad for a stirring burn; we’re a century or so overdue.

But three generations of los lobos are here for a family reunion at our cabin, part of a typical Central Colorado mountain subdivision nestled into dense ponderosa pine and oak brush. Just a few steps west of us, the San Isabel National Forest stretches up through dog-haired, insect-infested, mistletoe-festooned stands of ponderosa. Doug fir, white fir, lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce: the crooked timber of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

From the porch of our cabin, everyone from grandmother to grandchildren gapes at a spectacle unseen in three generations: dense, gray columns of smoke soar over the next ridge to the north, maybe three miles away-and upwind. After a wet winter, a hot, dry, long-winded June raves on into July without any let-up. In place of the usual afternoon thunderheads, burly black spurts of smoke shower us with fine soot. Must be the big white firs, incandescing.

Silently, I review the relationship between our white firs, our escape routes, and the fire lines I have cut. Good enough?

A big slurry bomber rumbles into the valley for a drop. I am working on an environmental history of these forests. My research tells me that lightning or Indians started fires that swept this elevation every five to 12 years, leaving behind open grasslands, a few big ponderosas, very little mature oak brush, and almost no big white fir. At higher elevations, in different timber types, the burns created patchwork patterns that made catastrophic, stand-destroying fires less likely.

By the time the Forest Service took over around the turn of the century, Americans had cut or burnt most of the accessible trees, right up to timberline. Down here along the Forest border, a century of grazing, fire suppression, and insect infestations have resulted in heavily-stocked, uneven-aged stands, especially rich in leggy scrub oak, dead and down fuels, mistletoe-and-porcupine-twisted ponderosa, and torch-like 60-foot white firs.

I spy something as rare as a forest fire in these parts, another oddity: a loaded logging truck. Must be coming off my neighbors, the Weltys, who own Summit Brick in Pueblo. They have a cabin and about 600 forested acres.

Like forests, loggers are always with us, but these truckloads, headed for the San Luis Valley, are the proud work of a truly rare breed, a private consulting forester.

Len Lankford and his family are our neighbors here in the Wet Mountain Valley. They live south beyond Weltys, a few miles away — downwind from us — and from today’s fires.

Between Lankford and us lie many acres of private, heavily forested lands, former ranchlands now broken into subdivisions. Like ours, these dried-up lands border public land. Unlike ours, and unlike the public land, these private forests are intensively managed by Lankford Foresters, Inc., to produce sawtimber, firewood, transplants, and Christmas trees. The luxuriant, long-needed white fir make especially valuable Christmas trees. Aspen, ponderosa, and blue spruce bring top dollar as transplants In Front Range cities. The Weltys like to ride, so Lankford designs and cuts meadows and paths for their horses.

If the federal government is, as many locals think, Leviathan, then Lankford Is at home in the belly of the beast. Since 1975, he has made a living in an unlikely way. He is a successful, private consulting forester in a setting dominated by government forestry — or the lack of it. For years, I kept seeing green and white signs announcing:

Lankford Foresters, Inc.

Tree Farm

Initially, I thought it was a joke. You can get free consulting from the Colorado State Forest Service. Sawtimber prices have been depressed for years, urban air quality concerns discourage wood-burning, and the government gives away firewood. If you have brains and private forested land, you grow subdivisions, not traditional wood products, on open space. Somebody else can grow commercial wood, preferably somewhere else. Somebody else can worry about the fire next time.

STARTING AROUND Salida and running down to Huerfano County, the Rainbow Trail snakes in and out for 100 miles along the flanks of the Sangres, separating public from private land. It was built for fire-control. Pausing on the way to consider the forestry on the Weltys land, I walked south on the Rainbow Trail to visit the home that Lankford and his wife, Martha, built for themselves.

Its the kind of place where you feel that the owners have lovingly cultivated, cut, milled, and finished every board. They have three children, and they live at the end of a road called Verdemont, the green inferno that towers between us.

Behind Lankford’s easy-going down-home style is a belief In forest management buttressed by a fierce work ethic and a master s degree In forestry from Yale.

As we talked, we doubled back on the Rainbow to consider the lay of the land. From time to time, I lose trophy ponderosa to bark beetles, porcupines, mistletoe, and the wind, which last month demolished my biggest, healthiest, most beautiful tree: a 250-year-old, 100-foot ponderosa.

With that kind of natural loss, many of my neighbors balk at cutting any live tree for any reason. My Boulder-bred niece accused me of murder when I thinned a stand of live trees. She meant it.

Summer people who spend their winter working days at computer consoles wince when a chainsaw whines near their vacation homes. People get huffy about E.J. Camp, the loner down the road who runs a little one-man sawmill, one of only two working mills left within 50 miles. People are horrified by fire-wary advice: thin to diminish ground cover, limb to erase ladders into the canopy.

If you do what those so-called foresters say, one neighbor from Colorado Springs warned, “all you will have left is a lot dotted with telephone poles. I bought my land because I love trees.”

LANKFORD ALSO LOVES TREES. “But I love the forests more,” he said. “The Forest Service will not or can not manage in these mixed conifer stands because they operate on too grand a scale. Their region-wide appraisal system can’t be as sensitive to local markets as I have to be. If they were pro-active here at the public/privat interface, they

would offer sales that make ecological and economic sense, regardless of boundaries. Then they could deal with fire problems and encourage entrepreneurs. If their living depended on good forestry, they would learn what I learned. These forests look worthless, but they will respond to good management.”

THEY SAY THAT NO FORESTER lives to see the results of her mistakes. Furthermore, federal foresters transfer frequently. Both the spotted owl and deficit-conscious taxpayers have forced an end to federal timber sales that never paid their own way.

The result of the Forest Service’s failure to manage, Lankford says, is that most adjacent private owners either ignored their forests or allowed cutters to high-grade the best trees with no forester Input, no slash disposal, no insect and mistletoe management, and no stump policy.

The area-wide result: acute fire danger. The area-wide solution: forestry that pays. Lankford works on a commission basis, cutting selectively, managing for sustained yield, a flow of forest products (and income to owners) over time. He helped the Colorado Forestry Association and the Colorado Tree Farming Committee lobby the state legislature for a Forest Agriculture Act, which he jokingly calls “the Forester’s Employment Act.

Landowners with 40 acres or more and a state-approved, forester-designed management plan qualify for the same low agricultural property tax rates that ranchers and farmers get. In a second home-driven market like Central Colorado, the tax dollar difference can be as significant as the ecological difference on the ground. One client with 500 acres saves $25,000 in taxes per year. Another Custer County neighbor, Paul Montgomery, was the 1990 Tree Farmer of the Year.

The Mexican spotted owl’s potent presence has contributed to a virtual standstill in timber harvest on the San Isabel. Whether related or not, there has been a recent tripling of local timber prices from $40 to $120 and more per thousand board feet.

For the first time in years, sawtimber is paying better than firewood. In spite of the 200-mile round-trip haul distance, industry giant Stone Container Corp. from South Fork in the San Luis Valley is buying both public and private timber over here. Mill manager Mike Duncan said that changes In Forest Service polices and Stone’s investment In a new kiln had made their stud operation hungry for private sawtimber.

For years, Lankford has been peppering Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Elizabeth Estill and Colorado State Forester Jim Hubbard with complaints about government sawtimber, firewood, and Christmas tree pricing policies. He has gotten nowhere. The government folks march to a different drummer. They seem more interested in the recreational aspects of personal-use firewood sales than in the mundane business of doing well while doing good: making money while managing land.

You get what you pay for. While a Forest Service firewood permit can be had for $10, many come away dissatisfied with the experience and the product. In addition, the land gets trashed: high stumps, poor slash disposal, and no attention to fighting insects and mistletoe.

Many of these people end up as Lankford’s customers. Before he turns them loose on a client’s private land, he gives them Instruction In chainsaw use, silviculture, and ecology — something like the Division of Wildlife’s Hunter Safety Program. That way, both parties end up cautious and happy.

From Lankford’s vantage, the Forest Service simply dumps products on the market. Regardless of demand, it will Issue 10,000 firewood permits per year in Colorado, with 2,000 of those in Lankford’s business area. Since he, unlike his government counterparts, must peg his prices to the laws of supply and demand, Lankford regards this as unfair competition.

Lankford Is similarly critical of Forest Service pricing and policy In sawtimber and Christmas trees. They are so concerned, he says, about not favoring any individual, that they ignore obvious opportunities to design ecosystem-management sales — ones that would help manage contiguous public-private lands In an ecologically sound fashion. Lankford even suggests a permit system for public-land forestry like that for grazing, with the proviso that permits be open to public bidding.

Further, Front Range air-quality concerns have forced a no-burn policy on the Forest Service, making prescribed burning nearly impossible. As Lankford points out, “either we burn it In our woodstoves, or it will burn eventually anyway.”

Government foresters just shake their heads. “Lankford breaks most of the so-called rules,” one told me, “but I envy his willingness to experiment and his ability to sell forestry to clients.” Without the nervous monkeys of public forestry standards (and urban environmentalists) on his back, Lankford has only his customers — and his own strong love of forests — to please.

No one is going to stop the subdivision of Colorado’s private forests. Someone like Lankford is going to figure out ways to integrate these homes into the living, breathing — and burning — forests that grow right up to Leviathan’s flank.

Meanwhile, back in the Wet Mountain Valley, an interagency team spent a week and 400,000 in tax dollars extinguishing the 350-acre Great Fire of 1993, which burnt right along the Rainbow Trail. Lankford shakes his head: “Add in the value of the forest products lost in the fire, and you’re talking real hurt.”

Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Tom Wolf’s environmental history, will be pubilshed in 1995 by Unlversity Press of Colorado.