Yellowstone: A future for our forests

Sidebar by Christina Nealson

Forests – July 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Smoke pours over the Sangre de Cristos, following the route I rode on my horse six weeks ago…winding up Cotton Creek Canyon on the west, into Horse Thief Basin, traversing to the top of Three Step Pass, up and over into south Brush Creek drainage on the east side…where the smoke fans and makes white the deep green forest.

This smoke is not a Sangre fire. It originates hundreds of miles to the west, from a controlled burn near Ignacio, Colorado. But residents don’t know that right away. Smoke with an unknown source makes us edgy. Yellowstone ebbs in memory.

Two months prior I had traveled the concrete ribbon road through Yellowstone, sandwiched between campers larger than my cabin with names like Residency, Escaper, and Warrior. Even in September, traffic was thick, as I crawled through mile after mile of eerie, charred landscape. It was no different in the back country, where geysers bubbled and cooed the guts of earth, sending boiling code skyward in steam. Ebony lodgepole trunks glistened in autumn sunlight. Some had fallen to the ground in crisscross chaos. Most still stood, ghosts of old Yellowstone. Under blackened skeletons shot green, soft seedlings. Millions, amidst thick grasses. Under others was sterilized gray powder earth, where nothing will grow for years.

To walk the Yellowstone burn is to walk the Sangre de Cristos of the future … or the Sawatch … the forests that fell under Smokey Bear’s “bad fire” paw.

At the turn of the century, fire was one more wild element to control. Like wolf. Like Old Mose, the last griz to haunt the dry mountains around Cotopaxi. Like Ute, relegated to small land squares in Colorado and Utah.

Thus was reversed a forest history of fire, one where fire and human co-evolved. Ute and early Hispanic settlers had regularly burned to clear mountain canyons.

Today, dry pine needles lie like thick icing across forest floor. Seedling trees and “invaders” such as scrub oak and white fir provide direct linkage from the lower story of the forest to the upper stories. This means that the high part of the trees that would normally survive a medium burn will burn.

In other words, the next fire to hit Central Colorado will be hot. It will burn lower and upper story canopy. In some areas, nothing will remain.

Not a difficult metaphor to understand.

We all have experienced suppression firsthand, with personal relationships. We’ve felt the stinging anger of someone close who doesn’t express anger. The longer it is kept inside, the smaller the chance for resolution. It builds so thick for so long that when it blows, it can’t be fixed.

Long-term suppression leads to scorched earth. Nothing to salvage. Nothing saved.

Large areas of Yellowstone are barren, powder moonscape.

It serves us well to remember a few things about Yellowstone, where drought, dry cold fronts, and lightning combined to set small fires in 1988. Nearly half — 45% — of the park burned over a three-month period. The greatest fire-fighting effort in the U.S. could not deter a fire-suppressed forest. C-130’s, army infantry, and dynamited fire breaks were powerless against fire embers tossed a mile ahead of the fire line.

What stopped the fire was what started it — natural causes. Cool temperatures and rain. A water-soaked, fire-lined Yellowstone Lodge, symbol of the final stand, had been abandoned.

I live in the Sangres. For five years I walked among the squat piñon on the side where moon sets. Now my trails are lined with skyward ponderosa that whistle shrill chords into the Wet Mountain Valley. Pine beetle invades. Dead trees lie like giant splinters across dry needled forest floor. Oak invades the under story. They are so thickly treed it is hard to walk them except by trail. They are so steep, even by trail, most people are repelled. There are few roads. These qualities keep the Sangres little touched by human, making them one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world. They also give one pause.

Like the elk herd that needs thinning by the wolf, forest needs fire to rejuvenate. Has no-burn policy rendered controlled burn an oxymoron?

The Forest Service, guardians of Central Colorado mountains, has traditionally suppressed fires. The Park Service, believing that nature should take its course, has not. The Forest Service knows it should not suppress, but politics dictates otherwise — the same politics that scorched the Park Service for the Yellowstone Burn.

While politicians and government agencies straddle ecology, science and profit/loss statements, Central Coloradans would do well to encourage forest thinning and controlled burns where feasible. It’s also a good idea to cut trees close to your house, shun shake roofs, and join the Tribe of the Thunder Watchers.

Christina Nealson crept carefully amongst back country geysers with her partner Tom Wolf, whose book, Colorado’s Sangre de Cristos Mountains, was published late last year.