Tom Ross: Surreal winter landscape foretells forest’s future |

Tom Ross: Surreal winter landscape foretells forest’s future

Buck Mountain overlooks Diamond Park in North Routt County, where a history of extreme wind storms and wildfire have played a role in reshaping the future of the Routt National Forest.

The trip up the North Fork of the Elk River into Diamond Park takes backcountry travelers through a surreal winter landscape. It’s a place where the bleached bones of evergreen forests stand silent watch over a sea of snow that is 6 feet deep.

The trees that remained standing after the Hinman Fire burned through the area in 2002 are either black and still wearing their cloaks of charred bark, or have shed their skins to reveal ivory-colored trunks.

It is a good place, and a good point in time, in which to contemplate the future of the national forest that surrounds Steamboat Springs on three sides.

Here, roughly at the point that Scott Run and Trail Creek mingle their waters with the North Fork, two singular events in the modern history of the forest overlapped.

It’s difficult to believe that a decade has passed since a cataclysmic winter storm – later dubbed the Routt Divide Blowdown – roared through the western fringe of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area in October 1997.

The storm packed unprecedented downdraft winds along its edge. It is estimated the gusts exceeded 100 mph – strong enough to knock down 16,000 acres of old growth timber.

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Scientists who studied the event noted that the fact that the forest that succumbed to the storm was old growth is evidence of just how rare the event was.

U.S. Forest Service officials cautioned us at the time that all of the damaged timber could cause an infestation of tiny but harmful beetles that would consume remaining stands of healthy timber.

Five years would pass before Routt County endured its worst drought in 90 years during the summer of 2002. That was the summer when the Hinman Fire, kindled by dry lightning strikes, roared to life and, driven by 50 mph winds, jumped the North Fork to climb into the dead trees left by the blowdown.

The Steamboat Pilot & Today has published many articles about the beetle invasion during the intervening years – perhaps too many. As the seasons ticked by without much evidence of the change, I grew numb to the magnitude of the change.

This winter, we’ve heard foresters pronounce that virtually all of the lodgepole pine forests – 1.5 million acres of them – in Colorado are doomed, and another 750,000 acres in Wyoming with them.

It’s no longer an abstraction when you pause mid-run on the Ted’s Ridge ski trail at Steamboat Ski Area and gaze on the rust-colored trees that are already beyond hope.

Depending upon how you look at it, this is either the end of the forest or the rebirth of the forest.

Purists would say that the Routt Divide Blowdown and the Hinman Fire were natural events and we should allow nature to take its course.

Realistically, our new forests will be influenced by human economic activity and our need to protect our property and our watersheds from the wildfires that are sure to revisit us.

Naturally, the Forest Service is years ahead of me.

The Northern Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative was convened to build understanding of the future of the forest community and the human community surrounded by the forest. One of the stated goals of the cooperative is to involve you and your community so that measures to be taken in the future will be in alignment with our goals for the valley.

Someone who has put a good deal of thought into these matters is writer George Sibley, who lives in the Gunnison River Valley. In an article in the January edition of Mountain Gazette, Sibley poses a lot of the right questions, including some that are controversial.

Sibley challenges environmentalists to come to terms with the likelihood that we cannot shape a positive outcome for the “next forest,” as he calls it, without intense management. And he wonders whether the existing Forest Service is capable of reinventing its own organizational culture to bring about necessary changes in forest management. His essay is worth tracking down.

The Cooperative reports it is working toward a sustainable forest products industry for Northern Colorado and Southern Wyoming. Sibley asks whether there’s any reason we can’t return to our past and develop small sawmills run on hydropower to create lumber to be used locally.

You can learn more about the Cooperative at

And if you travel up to Diamond Park and beyond this year, be prepared for the sight of countless thousands of dead and dying trees. They’ll make you stop and think. But don’t tarry too long in one spot.

All of those dead trees are due to fall down.

– To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

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