I went to Northeastern Wyoming a few weeks back; vague childhood memories of Devil’s Tower and Yellowstone did nothing to prepare me for just how different the landscape is out there.
There are next to no trees. You drive for miles through rolling hills and bluffs carpeted in sage green – thinning vegetative hair on a brown, rocky scalp. The land wears the weather; the sandstone eroded by wind and rain and time; the hills coming together and disintegrating into washed out seams that end in pale green puddles of foxtail barley – the only hint that water exists.
We lasted for a day in 105-degree heat, then sought refuge in the nearby Bighorn Mountains, where there are trees and it is low-whistle beautiful. The Bighorns are a relatively small mountain range by western standards, but big enough. We drove up a corkscrew road for about half an hour and then out into a mix of rolling high alpine meadows and forested hillsides, all framed by snow-capped peaks. I caught my breath and wished I had a pack horse, a canvas wall tent, and time to disappear into the Cloud Peak Wilderness for a month.
There are clear lines between forest and field in the high country, based on soil type (unlike in the Northeast, where the forest would take over everything if we let it). On sedimentary substrates, forest cover is less than 50 percent and dominated by Engelmann spruce and sub-alpine fir. More granitic substrates favor lodgepole pine. When I was there, the meadows were full of alpine flowers, including many circumboreal species that you’ll find on the top of New England’s highest peaks (or, for that matter, mountains in Norway or Siberia).
We camped in the 1,105,325 acre Bighorn National Forest, a jag of land that’s almost twice the size of Rhode Island. Like many national forests, it’s managed for both recreation and wood, though the management looks very different than it does back east. Out there, from what I saw, they’re cutting all softwood, using mostly clearcuts and shelterwood prescriptions. Tree planting is required on about 30 percent of the job sites, and growing conditions seem marginal, at best. One forest-grown pine we saw was about 10 inches in diameter and roughly 150 years old.
Post-harvest, I’m sure some of this wood makes its way into the local community –maybe as one of those giant, staple-shaped gates the ranchers frame their driveway with, or as a railroad tie that supports the hundred-plus-car coal trains that rumble through the Powder River Basin. But they don’t have the value-added opportunities for the wood that we do in the Northeast. Our high-value hardwood grows prolifically in our temperate climate and doubles in value when it’s turned into lumber; if the boards can then be converted into a wood product by a local manufacturer, the positive economic ripples continue. On page 58 of this issue, we give an overview of secondary wood product manufacturing in the region. The idea is to shine a spotlight on the link between our working forestland and the manufacturing base in our rural towns.
One of the fascinating aspects of Western forest management is fire suppression. We saw one job out there where a logging crew was using at least $600/hour worth of beautiful equipment to thin pine poles in a forest surrounding a gated development. Those skeptical of preemptive management argue that big fires are part of the land’s cycle of natural disturbance, and that what really needs to happen is people need to stop building houses in fire-prone areas. The data show that thinning and clearcuts (which act as fire breaks) can lower the chance of a massive fire, but won’t prevent small or medium-sized fires.
Those doing the work argue that a general lack of management and fire suppression has led to a forest that’s overloaded with fuel, and $1 million spent to prevent a $1 billion fire (like the 1.2 million-acre conflagration they had in Yellowstone in 1988) is a bargain. They say that thinning is a natural disturbance regime; that left to its own devices, a lodgepole forest will flare up and self-thin regularly, the fire killing some trees but sparing others.
In absorbing these perspectives, I felt lucky not to have a dog in this fight.
We don’t have fires here like they do out west, but we’re not immune to large scale disturbance events – you can read about one of our most famous on page 22. In Northern New York and New England, experts say we can expect a stand-replacing disturbance on the scale of thousands of acres once every 1,000-7,500 years. In the Bighorns, they expect one every 39-350 years. The fact that the acreage burned by western fires has more than doubled in the past 50 years, despite improved firefighting techniques, suggests their numbers may be conservative. Of course, as the climate continues to change, ours may be too.