‘How are we helping the landscape,
how are we helping the community and
what’s our long-term vision?’
The mid-December day was balmy, normal for these times. James Fischer, forestry manager for the 172,000-acre Trinchera Ranch, was explaining and pointing out aspects of the Trinchera’s adaptive management forest plan as he gained elevation in the SUV, barely a trace of snow even in the higher reaches.
“We’re trying to adapt and go ‘OK, what is it going to look like in the future?’ That’s hard,” he said, explaining how one of the largest conservation easements and pieces of property in Colorado is learning to adapt to the changing climate conditions.
“I mean, we’re basing it on models so you’re going ‘OK, it’s going to warm up. It’s going to dry out.’ How do we manage for that? I don’t know. As a profession, we’re trying
different things right now, hoping they’re going to work. I mean, this is a long-term process. We’re only here for just a short period of time.”
Spruces and mixed conifers 120 to 150 years old are thinned from the forest and hauled to the Blanca Forestry Products sawmill maybe 15 miles away – down the mountain to the Valley floor and on the outskirts of the town of Blanca.
Of Trinchera’s total acreage, 90,000 are timbered, said Fischer. “Then out of that, there’s 30,000 of spruce, 30,000 of mixed conifer and about 30,000, roughly, of aspen in there.” He can recite those numbers because the saw mill’s business model pushed him to update the Trinchera’s forest management plan and conduct a new inventory to give him precise numbers of what exists.
The saw mill itself was a stroke of genius. Like the Trinchera Ranch, it is owned by conservation philanthropist Louis Bacon. Operated by Blanca Forestry Products, it came online in 2017 and produces 8.5 million to 9 million board feet of timber a year out of the Trinchera.
“I think that evolution to get to the sawmill was really important because it helped not only the ranch understand, but it was an opportunity to work with the community and understand what fits those needs,” said Judy Lopez, conservation and sustainability manager for the Trinchera Ranch. “When we think about the sawmill, it’s just not a place for timber but it also created this pool of jobs for all local folks.”
“The same thing up here. As James continues to expand the logging operation, we’re seeing more and more folks in the area getting higher quality jobs and being able to do work here at home that’s meaningful. I think that is one of the key pieces of everything that goes on here and looking at it through that big, broad lens: how are we helping the landscape, how are we helping the community and what’s our long-term vision? Those are two really key pieces of that vision.”
Since July, crews have focused on an 8-mile stretch of the Trinchera Ranch. Operations are a mosaic across the different landscapes to help reduce fuels. Using some of the cleanest and most technologically-advanced equipment, logs are cut to the precise size for the saw mill.
“The big change is how we get this material out, the equipment that’s being used,” said Fischer. “There’s only two pieces of equipment doing all of this. One cuts and manufactures the logs out in the woods, the other piece goes behind, picks it up, brings it up here, puts it by the road or decks it.”
Decks of logs, guessing 25 feet high or higher, line the mountain roads over those eight miles. The cut timber is evidence of how the forest is actively managed. During the day, four semi-trucks will go back and forth to the saw mill, each hauling eight loads a day, 12 at best.
It’s not only the proactive and adaptive nature of the forest management plan, but the importance of it. Protecting the Trinchera Watershed which feeds into the Rio Grande Basin is critical to the Valley’s ecosystem.
“Everything is tied holistically because we all realize in the West, water is our limited resource,” said Aaron Swallow, environmental manager for the Trinchera and Tercio Ranches. “What James is trying to do here is protect this watershed, again, from that high-severity fire that’ll just essentially nuke it out. Then we don’t have water, and we don’t have fisheries for a couple of years. That’s very scary.”
The dryness of the Valley and the scenario of a forest fire hit close to home for the Trinchera most recently in 2018, during the Spring Creek fire. Since then, the severe drought over the past two years causes a variety of concerns for Fischer as he surveys the forest around him.
“The problem is, come summer, if we don’t get moisture, then these trees . . . they’re stressed going into the winter, then spring comes and we get little moisture, they’re just going to get more stressed so then they’re more susceptible for those beetles to bore in and kill those trees,” said Fischer.
“What happens when these beetles fly, they’ll start boring into the closest tree they can get to and, if one of them is, say, stressed and can’t produce enough sap to pitch that beetle out, it gets in and then they send a pheromone out or release a pheromone for all of their buddies to go “Hey, I got in, come join the party,” and they go attack that tree.”
An overstocked forest means the trees are competing for limited nutrients, water and sunlight. “Throw drought in there, and that’s kind of the final nail in the coffin,” Fischer said.
The Trinchera Ranch is part of a Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which is a certification program that examines the ranch’s harvesting practices. As the only certified forest in Colorado, Fischer’s forest management plan is scrutinized through on-site visits and data he provides on the inventory of the forest to road layouts.
“Our planning, our whole implementation, everything from start to finish, is gone over with a fine-tooth comb,” said Fischer. “They look at our forest management planner, our inventory, that all needs a check. Then, how are we doing with road layout? They look at that and ‘OK, you’re meeting it. Are you exceeding it? OK, you’re doing that.’”
The benefits are to the land itself and the protection of the natural environment of the San Luis Valley.
“I think it’s critical for the Sangre de Cristos and the wildlife corridors that are moving around here,” said Lopez. “Especially as we see dryings happening, we’re going to need places for animals to move, we need places for species to move. We need to have a place where there’s a protected area where all of these things can begin to happen. I think, in that way, what we’re doing is super important.”
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