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MEYER RANCH PARK — With a small grove of nearby aspen at 8,200 feet just starting their color conversion to yellow, Steve Germaine straddles the border between a healthy, fire-resistant slope and an overgrown tinderbox.
As Germaine looks up Legault Mountain, on his left are dense private swaths of mixed ponderosa, fir and spruce forest, letting little light shine through at 300 trees an acre. On his right are a dozen acres of Jefferson County Open Space land thinned aggressively this summer to 30 trees per acre.
Just weeks after the last tree skidder departed, the aspen grove uncovered by the thinning is sending out tender shoots a foot tall. In a few years, the aired-out aspen grove may triple in size, supporting a return of dozens of wildflower species, hummingbirds, finches and blue jays. Fall leaf peepers could stop here instead of joining the late September hordes westward atop Kenosha Pass.
The terrain here is tricky. And not just because some of the slash from clear-cutting is still underfoot.
Jefferson County Open Space is implementing treatments like clear cutting and prescribed burns throughout approximately 37 acres of Ponderosa, aspen, and lodgepole forests in to improve forest structure and reduce wildfire risks. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Jeffco Open Space owns 25,000 acres of forest and has a new plan to severely trim 1,000 acres in the next five years. Foresters want to mitigate fire danger in a county mostly made up of the dangerous wildland-urban interface driving public safety policy.
They also want to restore ecological diversity lost in a century of natural fire suppression and rapid county development. The new forest plan, Jeffco’s first in 34 years, goes before the county commission for approval Tuesday.
But early thinning efforts in the plan have been attacked on social media and by petition as catastrophic clear cuts that ruin the aesthetics of open space.
“Visitors are seeing a fresh wound,” said Germaine, natural resources supervisor of Jefferson County Open Space. “Forests don’t operate on human time spans. There’s short-term ugliness, just like a patient coming out of surgery. We need the public to agree to tolerate that.”
Germaine and his staff say they are prepared for the debate, an open attitude lauded by wildfire experts and social scientists who have watched similar controversies play out in Boulder County and other Front Range battlegrounds.
Their peers across multiple levels of government agencies may also want to settle in for the blowback: The U.S. Forest Service in January declared growing wildfire dangers a “crisis,” announcing plans to work with partners like Jeffco to thin 20 million additional acres on Forest Service property and 30 million more on other federal, state and local tracts. One accelerant to the plan will come if Jeffco and other Colorado agencies win grants from $5 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law spending set aside for fire mitigation.
But Sandra Carpenter, whose home abuts Flying J Ranch park west of Conifer, said she’s still waiting for the grass and wildflowers to sprout near swaths of forest that were cut by Denver Mountain Parks in 2020.
The 418-acre Flying J is in Jefferson County, but includes Denver-owned land. Treating it, Meyer Ranch and other open space near growing communities, to protect against fire was a high priority for Jeffco and Denver Mountain Parks.
Sandra Carpenter, whose home borders the Flying J Ranch, opposes the forest cuttings. As an ultrarunner, she’s switched her route to avoid the mulch-filled clearings where more noise travels through the trails. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Flying J used to be a place Carpenter would go to escape the summer heat. But since the cuts, she said, it has become much hotter. She has switched her running route, avoiding parts of the checkered park where chipped-away trees and mulch-covered ground alternate with areas of dense forest. Those sections of the trail have become “too upsetting,” and now she runs back and forth from two parking lots where trees are untouched, she said.
“It looks like the park has mange because of all the bald spots with the weird, random spots where there are a few trees,” Carpenter said.
Rooms with a suddenly different view
Carpenter is one of about 280 people who have signed an online petition, urging Jeffco officials to stop thinning hundreds of acres of forest across the county, in the way sections of Flying J Ranch were cut.
Organizers of the petition, created by grassroots environmental group Eco-Integrity Alliance, claim the thinning dries out forest by opening stands to sunlight and wind and could allow flames to spread faster. The petition cites scientific journals to discredit the thinning across 150 acres of forest along 3 miles of Flying J Ranch as a way to reduce wildfire risk. Managing fuels across the West is inadequate to address a “new era” of wildfires fueled by intense winds and high temperatures, one of the studies cited in the petition says.
Instead, they promote focusing on creating defensible space around homes by clearing trees and vegetation and replacing wooden fences and roofs with less flammable alternatives, pointing to a 2000 study by the U.S. Forest Service that says these changes give homes a 95% chance of surviving a wildfire.
The steady buzz of the masticator chipping trees not far from her home in March 2020 was the first Carpenter had heard about the thinning. It continued through the end of year. Ever since, she’s seen fewer deer in the park and is currently fending off chipmunks that have chewed through the wires of her hot tub and lodged themselves in her ceiling.
“They just displaced a ton of wildlife,” she said. “They said in two to three years, it’ll be this beautiful meadow of wildflowers and grass and you know, I’m waiting. So far, it’s still just mulch.”
Josh Schlossberg, Colorado’s steering committee member for Eco-Integrity Alliance, is calling for more investment of state and federal funds into providing homeowners incentives for hardening their homes and protecting their space from wildfire, along with the preservation of forests, calling it “the most effective and easiest” way to address the climate crisis.
This past summer, the group funded a billboard in downtown Denver demanding President Joe Biden, Senators John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse “stop wasting $3 billion” to log national forests.
“What’s happening is we’re using the public lands as the sacrifice zones. We don’t think any of this tree cutting should be happening on public lands,” Schlossberg said. “It’s not justified scientifically or ecologically.”
Schlossberg is urging those concerned with Jeffco’s plan to attend the county commissioner meeting Tuesday where officials will discuss the plan. The county plans to apply for state and federal grants to fund the project and cost estimates range between $1,800 to $10,000 an acre depending on terrain.
The portions of Flying J that have raised the most public ire are actually controlled by Denver’s mountain park system, which cooperates with Jeffco when they have adjacent land.
“We got the short end of the stick at Flying J,” said Andy Perri, a Denver Mountain Parks program manager for forestry and natural resources. “We were dealt a very unhealthy forest on our two sections.”
Thick lodgepole stands on Denver’s portion of the property were plagued by beetles and dwarf mistletoe, which grows in the canopy and effectively places a tinderbox high in the forest. So Denver simply had to remove more, creating the shorn-land look that riled many visitors.
Flying J Ranch Park spans about 418 acres of lodgepole pines, ponderosas and Douglas fir trees among other species. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
“We try our best to contact neighbors, but it’s just me and two others in our program,” Perri said. Reaction ranges from extremely upset to extremely grateful, he added. “I try my best to explain the science — and we’re not here to sell timber, our wood is basically worth nothing.”
Hiker Donna MacCarey from Lakewood walked past Germaine at Meyer Ranch’s thinned patch as he explained how sunshine was now reaching the ground and coaxing aspen shoots out of the soil. MacCarey, who used to live in Telluride and misses the luxurious fall aspen stands there, said she has bypassed Meyer Ranch frequently on her way up U.S. 285 to leaf viewing trips on Kenosha or Guanella pass.
“I’d love to use this one,” she said.
The back door to wildfires
The draft forest plan underlines sprawling Jeffco’s reputation as “the front door to the Colorado mountains.”
Yet the artificially dense conifer forests are also the back door to wildfires threatening millions of Front Range residents. Since the late 1990s, the Buffalo Creek, Hayman and Lower North Fork fires have devastated large chunks of the wildland urban interface in the county, sending desperate warning signals to the 572,000 people now living there — up from about 430,000 the last time the forest plan was rewritten in 1988.
Some of the new Jeffco analysis was accomplished by poring over 1930s aerial photos. The old snapshots revealed a time when through clearing and grazing, Jeffco ranchers had created wide meadows and forests with an open understory. That’s an ecology Germaine and his foresters believe would be healthy to replicate in spots — minus the cattle.
For decades since, native ponderosa pine that used to be rejuvenated by natural fires have been overgrown with a denser mix of conifers best suited for other elevations and terrain. Dead lower branches and windfall from lodgepole, spruce and fir create a “ladder” effect that, when wildfires hit, blows intensely hot fires up into the canopy and across miles of home-dotted hillsides.
And since most problems in the West eventually come back to water, Jeffco has to plan for its role as the host to much of metro Denver’s precious drinking water sources. Jeffco encompasses the watershed for 80% of the Denver metro area’s needs, and previous wildfires have forced costly reservoir cleanups and hillside revegetation to eliminate silting from runoff.
Accidents and the influx of neighbors largely removed one forest management tool: prescribed burns. Foresters burned 1,600 acres from 1999 to 2012, when winds blew up a dormant prescribed burn and launched the Lower North Fork fire, which killed three people, destroyed or damaged about two dozen homes and forced thousands to evacuate.
Then-Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered a halt to all prescribed burns on state land. Ever since, many jurisdictions have operated with strict rules on open burns, and some will only burn slash piles when adequate snow cover insulates the piles from breakouts. Part of the new Jeffco forestry plan, Germaine said, is to put county residents on notice that some form of prescribed burns will be sought in the near future to help handle the volume of necessary tree work.
The Jeffco forest draft uses careful formulas to rank open space most in need of fire mitigation. It then layers on top areas that desperately need the ecological diversity that can be launched by thinning invasive species and opening space for crowded-out gems like aspen groves. The fire-prone and ecologically-challenged areas often overlap. Thinning retracts the forest roof for aspen, native wildflowers, flycatchers and snails, and Jeffco’s important threatened species, the Pawnee montane skipper butterfly.
“Those are the markers we’ll be looking for” as Meyer Ranch Park recovers from its 2022 thinning, Germaine said, stopping to point out thriving late-summer wildflowers and standing tree snags left as housing for squirrels, owls and snakes.
Meyer Ranch Park, about 660 acres in area, overlooks Highway 285. Jefferson County Open Space is implementing treatments like clear cutting and prescribed burns throughout approximately 37 acres of Ponderosa, aspen, and lodgepole forests in to improve forest structure and reduce wildfire risks. (Photos by Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
If a loud voice falls in the forest, does anyone hear?
Hannah Brenkert-Smith watched some of the same thinning vs. perception dynamic play out during a 2,460-acre cutting program on Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest lands around Nederland. The plan included a public conflict-resolution process, which Brenkert-Smith later studied from her position in the Environment & Society Program at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Behavioral Science.
“What we found is that the people who are in opposition were actually in the minority,” Brenkert-Smith said. “They’re just really vocal and well organized, and they get a lot of attention.”
Forest managers the researchers worked with were often braced for much more overwhelming opposition that never really materialized, Brenkert-Smith said.
“So one of the things that I think is really important is not to assume what the public is going to think. And also not to let loud voices shape the narrative,” she said. “You actually have to go out and find out what people think, and not just the people who have the time and the motivation to show up at everything, and to write all the letters and to harness their social capital, but the silent majority who tends to be supportive.”
It’s also true, she said, that there can be a divide between users of public lands who live far away, and don’t have to live daily with ugly thinning projects, and the views of neighbors.
“We just don’t know if there’s some kind of threshold of proximity,” Brinkert-Smith said. “Obviously people have sentimental attachments to landscapes.”
Those attachments sometimes reside in neighbors with powerful voices.
Nature photographer John Fielder said he was shocked when Schlossberg, from the Eco-Integrity Alliance, called to tell him about the thinning of Flying J Ranch. He said had been drawn to the place by its fertile, dense forest in 2012 while photographing all 43,000 acres of Denver’s mountain parks for a project.
“I’ve pretty much been over every acre of Colorado’s 66 million acres in the last 50 years and I get emotional when I think about how to best move forward and protect the extraordinary ecosystems that I’ve had the pleasure to visit and photograph,” Fielder said.
The “overgrown forests” premise behind land managers and the federal government’s logging provisions is being questioned by the scientific community, Fielder wrote in a Denver Post op-ed that was co-written with research ecologist Chad Hanson earlier this year. Most scientific studies have found that denser forests tend to burn less intensely when wildfires occur, they wrote.
Fielder has denounced federal and state funding to thin the West’s forests and urged officials to spend more money to protect at-risk communities like those that fell victim to the Marshall fire as it raced through grasslands, not forests.
He remembers watching from his home, south of Kremmling, as capricious 65-mph winds on a dry and hot day in October 2020 stirred up the East Troublesome fire. The strong winds, fueled by global warming, have changed the landscape in how we must address wildfire risk, he said, arguing that thick forests could help slow down a fire.
“It is critical to be able to understand what’s happening and to go 20 years into the future and be able to predict what it’s going to be like so we can make change. And part of that is fire science,” Fielder said.
Forestry officials may also be misguided in assuming that every single neighbor’s highest priority is protecting homes from wildfire at any cost, said Flying J neighbor Carpenter.
“The forest didn’t overtake us. We overtook the forest and with that comes responsibility and acceptance that fires happen,” she said. “You get insurance. You don’t remove the open space because you are afraid that a fire is going to burn down your house.”
Brenkert-Smith gives credit to agencies with the foresight to bring in outside advice on communication, mediation or negotiation with articulate, emotional voices from the community.
“Foresters are foresters, not social scientists,” she said. “They’re not always trained to engage with the public. And it’s a special skill set that takes time and patience and energy, and the ability to take the perspective of the other, which is not easy.”
All public officials have experienced the frustration of holding a year of public education events only to see last-minute opposition sweeping in to say “you never warned us,” she added.
There was a treatment for emerald ash borer near her own home, near Boulder’s Chautauqua Park, with signs up for a year and a half explaining what would happen and why. Still, when the trucks showed up to take down the trees, “everybody freaked out,” she said.
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Jeffco Open Space did not set a round of public hearings or exchanges over the comprehensive new forest plan, relying instead on the upcoming commissioners’ consideration to air out major issues. When individual thinning projects are scheduled, Germaine said, Jeffco makes direct contact with neighbors to explain the scope of the nearby work and why it’s necessary. The county also broadcasts the project on social media, with links to the details and the science behind the plan.
“We used to host public meetings to advertise forestry projects, but they weren’t well-enough attended for us to feel we were reaching a critical mass of residents,” Germaine said. Hence, he added, the intensified social media effort.
Despite the human nature for ignoring early meetings, there’s no substitute for regular education outreach in trying to reach that silent majority, Brenkert-Smith said.
“If you’re going to do a big forest plan, start talking to the community early and often,” she said.