National Forest Foundation

Balancing Fires and Fun - White River National Forest

The National Forest System, Treasured Landscapes

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In March, NFF friend and author, Char Miller, released a beautiful coffee table book called America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses and Grasslands. We are pleased to be able to excerpt several of Miller’s thoughtful essays in a new blog series we’re calling: “In-Depth: America’s Forests from Past to Present.” The series focuses on National Forests that are part of our Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences conservation effort. If you’re interested in learning more about the NFF’s work on these amazing landscapes, please visit nationalforests.org/treasured.

We hope you enjoy the blog series and Tim Palmer’s gorgeous photos that accompany the book and the posts. You can purchase America’s National Forests, Wildernesses and Grasslands at fine book retailers and online outlets throughout the country.

It says something about the demands of the vice president’s job that in 1901 Theodore Roosevelt took five weeks off that winter to go cougar hunting in the Colorado Rockies. With his base camp at Keystone Ranch (elevation 9,000 feet), and using horses and dogs to run down his quarry, the sharp-eyed hunter carefully recorded his every kill. He was as diligent in noting the shifting ecosystems through which he and his guide daily rode. “It is high, dry country,” Roosevelt wrote, “wild and broken in character, the hills and low mountains rising in sheer slopes and riven by deeply cut and gloomy gorges and ravines.”

As they switchbacked through sagebrush-dominated flats, worked their way up “open groves of pinyon and cedar,” and with greater difficulty zigzagged between tall spruces clustered in “cold ravines,” Roosevelt reveled in this strenuous life.

The keen cold air, the wonderful scenery, and the interest and excitement of the sport, made our veins thrill and beat with buoyant life.

Theodore Roosevelt

Surely contemporary skiers, every time they rocket down any of Keystone Resort’s Black Diamond trails, share Roosevelt’s excitement (minus the bloodletting). What they probably do not know, but Roosevelt would have, is that Keystone Mountain and other legendary ski resorts—including Aspen and Vail, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, and Snowmass—are located within the now 2.3-million-acre White River National Forest.

Already an eminent conservationist and ardent proponent of the forest-reserve system, Roosevelt would have been aware that President Benjamin Harrison had established the White River Plateau Timberland Reserve in 1891. It was the first such reserve in Colorado and the second in the nation. Within a year of becoming president, Roosevelt again interacted with the White River, shrinking its size in part because his 1901 excursion had revealed that some of its original expanse was more suitable for agriculture.

What Roosevelt could not have imagined was that the very rough ground he had ridden over would become one of the world’s most illustrious destinations for alpine sports. Neither could he have anticipated that the ski industry annually generates more than three billion dollars for the state (and 17 million for the Forest Service). Or that despite the ongoing presence of extractive industries such as mining, logging, and energy development, which he would have approved of, the White River National Forest hosts more than 10 million visitors each year, the most of any national forest. Recreation is its biggest business.

This boost to the Centennial State’s coffers would not have happened had the forest’s early detractors had their way. They were infuriated when President Harrison set it aside. Mocked the Meeker Herald: “When the Park is established won’t that place become famous for hunting and fishing? Oh, yes, Uncle Sam will let you have all the sport you want outside the boundaries.” Mockery gave way to shock at how much territory the new established forest encompassed. “The figures are appalling and it is no wonder that the people are aroused,” the Herald’s editors thundered, urging readers to “join hands in a solid phalanx against the dude design for an outdoor museum and menagerie.”

Photo by Tim Palmer

However miscast, this characterization of the “park” was another reason President Roosevelt reduced the White River’s acreage. Locals were mollified as well by the enactment of regulations that permitted them, for a fee and under supervision, to graze, log, and dig on these public lands. They were especially appreciative of the government rangers’ early efforts to control fire. Long an integral part of the forest’s ecosystem (lodgepole pine requires its intense heat to regenerate), fire had created much of the landscape’s open quality that Roosevelt had delighted in. Whatever source of fire—lightning sparked or human ignited—late 19th-century Coloradans thought any blaze should be suppressed to protect the economy they were building out of the region’s resources.

Foresters at this time shared the public’s antipathy for wildfire, believing it to be the greatest enemy to achieving their managerial goals. Whenever and wherever smoke swirled up into the sky, they were determined to knock it down. Their efforts were not always effective, especially early on when an individual ranger might oversee hundreds of thousands of acres. In the White River National Forest, however, the small force of forest rangers proved effective. Working with the “cooperation of the citizens of the region,” and routinely prosecuting “those who were careless with fires,” the forest’s managers reported that from 1909, “the first year for which records are available, through 1940, only 779 acres of land” were burned. Their strategy gained additional force in subsequent decades as staffing increased, firefighting budgets grew, and new technologies such as airplanes, bulldozers, and chainsaws aided the cause.

These foresters acted on what they believed to be true.

Subsequent research has demonstrated, however, that all-out fire suppression, when combined with past clearcutting, has produced even-aged, overly dense forests, offering a rich food source to beetles.

Their well-nourished population also has exploded due to climate change; nationally, more than 41 million acres have been infected, turning once-green pines a sickly dull red. Warmer winters and intensified droughts have meant more beetles, greater tree mortality, and an extended and increasingly dangerous fire season.

Reversing this dire situation is complicated. It is impossible to treat every infested acre, even if the agency had the requisite funding, which it does not. Given these constraints, the Forest Service instead has focused on collaborating across ownership boundaries and sharing costs where possible. The goals are to ensure public safety in a terrain full of dead trees and recover forest health. Another aspect of this collaborative effort is to reintroduce fire under certain conditions, with the larger goal of renewing ecosystem resilience such that the White River National Forest can better survive stress.

These interrelated challenges are unlike any that the founding generation of American foresters faced. But what the two cohorts share is a commitment to act in the world, to make it more vibrant and self-sustaining. In the White River and other national forests, this promises to be a full-time job for the greater good over the long haul.


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