This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
BLANCA — Dead trees raked from the forest floor are piled into fences more than a dozen feet high. Inside the tangled-timber barricades are verdant forests of aspens. On the other side is a barren landscape, where armies of marauding ungulates munch every aspen shoot that pushes through the dirt.
The aspen havens span hundreds of acres across the 172,000-acre Trinchera Blanca Ranch flanking southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley. And they are only a sliver of the forest-management strategies at the ranch that are emerging as a model for the most progressive science bolstering forest health across a drought-stricken Intermountain West.
“We go big at things,” says Ty Ryland, who moved to the ranch as a kid in 1969 and took over management of the spread from his father in 1990. “To manage this many acres, you can’t do things small scale.”
Nothing is small at Trinchera, as the ranch is known locally. Three peaks on the ranch reach past 14,000 feet. The ranch’s owner, renowned conservationist and financier Louis Bacon, locked the ranch’s acreage into a conservation easement preventing development. And then he gave that easement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the largest in the agency’s history.
Almost a decade after purchasing the ranch from the family of Malcolm Forbes in 2007, Bacon opened a sawmill near the ranch gate in the village of Blanca. Today, that lumber operation processes about 12 million log feet of timber a year, yielding about 20 million board feet of lumber that is sold to builders in 60 cities across more than two dozen states. Most every tree that arrives at the Blanca Forestry Products sawmill is coming from Trinchera, where forest scientists, wildlife biologists and cutting-edge loggers are developing a forest-thinning model for improving ailing woodlands.
“You like your yard to look good at your house, right?” Ryland says with the sing-song lilt common among San Luis Valley natives. “Well, this is his yard.”
Restoring the forest includes protecting aspen from elk
There’s a lot going on in Bacon’s yard. A mowing dozer just inside the gate is churning up sage meadows, allowing a wider array of grasses to grow. Loggers have yanked out the conifers in riparian areas along the ranch’s Ute Creek, giving cottonwoods and aspens more space to grow. They have removed undergrowth and conifers from dense forests on the southern flank of Mount Lindsay, hoping to return the ponderosa pine savanna ecosystem to the mountainside. (The less-dense forests also serve as fire breaks that hinder wildfire from spreading to steep slopes where firefighting is difficult.)
Then there are those fences around the aspens. The ever-munching elk on the ranch are rarely bothered by people. (Only bow hunters are allowed on the property.) So the animals barely look up from their lush lunches when a Ford pickup rolls through their meadows and forests.
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These kinds of projects at Trinchera regularly draw scientists, land owners and federal land managers seeking insights into fire mitigation, fire recovery, pest control and protecting wildlife alongside hunting, grazing, logging and other resource development.
“I think Trinchera is managing at the cutting edge of a lot of science in forest management. In many ways, ranches like Trinchera are really creating new science,” says Lesli Allison, the executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, whose members have attended several workshops on the ranch in recent years. “When a ranch like Trinchera shares the knowledge they have developed and experienced through the lessons they have learned, it saves time, money and unnecessary mistakes for other landowners.”
Make lumber, reduce severity of forest fire
Perhaps the most innovative tool for forest health at Trinchera is the Blanca sawmill, which employs about 80 full-time workers in Costilla County, where nearly a third of residents live in poverty. The largely automated mill is hectic and loud. Safety signs next to whirring machines and spinning blades warn of laser beams and dismemberment. The mill’s workers — many members of the same family — move alongside the machines with similar efficiency as logs rolls in from the north and emerge as packaged lumber on the south end.
“One of the best-paying jobs in the valley,” Ryland said.
The mill processes mostly conifers: ponderosa pine, Western white pine, Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce. A large portion of the spruce processed at the mill comes from stands killed by infestations of bark beetles and budworm on the ranch. That ravaged spruce must be harvested before it dries and splits, lending a growing sense of urgency to the pace of logging.
A pile of massive logs tumble onto conveyor belts up high at the mill. They are roughly cut to lengths varying between 8 feet and 12 feet before they are shoved through ring saws that debark the tree trunks. Then the trunks are laser scanned by a machine that determines the best cuts from each of the logs. Some become 1-inch planks and others 6×6-inch beams. The rest are cut into all the sizes in between.
A wood-fired boiler, fed by a conveyor belt loaded with shredded bits of scrap from the mill, generates pressurized, 300-degree steam, which is piped next door to heat the kiln that dries lumber. After drying, the wood is sent through a house-sized planer and cut to precise lengths.
Teams of speedy workers sort and label the lumber for quality, deftly swiping markers across the boards. Those marks are read by machines that stamp the planks with a grade of one through four. The goal of the plant is to produce at least 80% of its lumber as a #2 — the most common grade for framing houses — or better quality.
“We want as high volume and as high grade as we can,” Ryland says.
After the boards are stamped, stacked and banded, an army of forklifts race the trundled bundles to the yard, where a steady stream of semi trucks ferry the wood to projects and lumber yards across the country.
“People like our products. We definitely have a lot of return customers,” says Ryland, who a couple years ago was able to bring his dad, Errol, on a tour of the sawmill.
The elder Ryland was a wildlife biologist who was hired by the Forbes family to manage Trinchera. He forged new ground in forest management during his tenure. But he had a new appreciation when he saw the mill, his son says.
“He was pretty amazed. He was kind of blown away,” Ryland says.
The sawmill as a key forest health and economic development tool
The Blanca mill is a bright light in a struggling timber industry. The sawmill infrastructure across the West is depleted after decades of declining timber sales on federal land. As a 19-year drought ravages the West, the dense forests have erupted in record-setting wildfires.
The U.S. Forest Service has directed more of its budget toward fighting those wildfires, from about 16% in 1995 to more than 60% in recent years, reaching a record $2.4 billion last year. That means there is little money left over each year for mitigation and forest-health programs. So less timber is being harvested on public lands and once-bustling sawmills across the West have fallen dark, especially as beetle-kill timber harvests yield largely unmillable wood that has spent too many years drying and splitting on the stump.
“We have adequate capacity in some places, but not in other places,” says Molly Pitts, the executive director of the Colorado Timber Industry Association, noting a lack of lumber mills around Denver’s Front Range and along the Interstate 70 mountain corridor, where a lot of beetle-kill timber ends up at the biomass power plant in Gypsum or the new Grand County sawmill in Parshall.
The Blanca mill works because it can count on a steady flow of timber from the Trinchera ranch. Building a lumber-processing business based on the flow of wood from public lands can be challenging, Pitts says.
“That sawmill to me was a no-brainer because they are able to utilize all the wood they pull off their own land and capture the cost of their management,” she says. “Relying on Forest Service wood is a trickier proposal. It takes a lot larger gamble when you are relying on federal wood.”
Pitts hopes the fire-funding legislation that goes into effect next year — which sets aside $2.25 billion for fire suppression beyond each year’s fire allocation so the Forest Service doesn’t have to borrow from its operational budget to pay fire-fighting costs — will stimulate more timber salvage and fire-mitigation logging on public lands, increasing the flow of timber to the state’s mills.
“We are hoping for relief from that fire funding fix,” Pitts says.
More trees dying than can be harvested
Pitts says investors who see potential in logging on federal land certainly will turn to Trinchera for ideas. The forestry and logging operation on the ranch deploys the highest-tech tools — like the low-impact, Ponsse machines that can harvest timber on super-steep slopes while grinding limbs and bark to protect the forest floor from its tires. Add in the automated Blanca mill and Trinchera’s forest management is a model for modern timber harvesting and processing, Pitts says.
“Trinchera is kind of a perfect example because they have enough acreage to do work that makes a real difference in the larger landscape,” she says.
The Blanca sawmill is one answer to the West’s forest management struggles, but it’s a solution afforded by a billionaire who can invest millions in forest health and build a business that will eventually reimburse that investment in forest management programs. Before Bacon built the sawmill, Ryland was able to harvest only 1.2 million to 1.9 million log feet of timber off the ranch. Last year he harvested 7 million log feet, and this year he’ll harvest even more until they reach 12 million log feet a year.
“We have more timber dying from beetle infestation than we are harvesting. So forest health is a big part of this,” Ryland said. “Forest health is the only reason this sawmill is here. Do we want to be in the sawmill business? Absolutely not. But we are trying to use the sawmill to reduce the forest health issues that we have.”
Trinchera lost a couple thousand acres in last summer’s devastating Spring Creek Fire — far fewer acres than were scorched in the 2006 Malo Vega Fire and a fraction of the acres burned on Bacon’s Tercio Ranch to the south in 2002.
“We’ve been through our share of wildfires,” Ryland says on the one-year anniversary of the start of the Spring Creek Fire. “But without mitigation efforts, the damage was minimal. So I’m pretty proud of what we are doing here. We like to think we are doing it the right way and we have a lot of examples to show other people.”