Gray areas spot the dark evergreen forests of Bighorn National Forest. The patchwork of colors reveals the attack from spruce beetles that munched their way through 76,000 acres in Wyoming, including small, concentrated areas in the Bighorn Mountains. Now the attacks have stabilized, according to Kelly Norris, the forester for Wyoming State Forestry’s District 5.
But a new attack looms on the horizon. The mountain pine beetle, which has unleashed wide swaths of devastation over the Rockies, is primed to attack one of the few forests that hasn’t fallen.
“We’re like an island out here,” Norris said of the Bighorns.
The state’s forested land has escaped the epidemic so far. Most of the trees affected have been in the Bighorn National Forest, federal land that is out of Norris’ jurisdiction. And those attacks are just endemic, meaning they are part of a natural cycle.
But just as the area is primed for an attack, it might also be primed for a new kind of agriculture: tree farming.
Norris met with several landowners from Buffalo and the nearby Bighorn Mountains in the Billy Creek state land trust June 6 for an educational stewardship field day to discuss the merits of forest stewardship and tree farming.
“I wanted to pull you guys together for an educational day, for you to introduce yourselves to each other and tell you about land stewardship,” Norris greeted the 11 people gathered in a tight circle.
Norris told the landowners they had two options for managing their forested land. The Wyoming Forest Stewardship program and the American Tree Farm System program both promise landowners a chance to learn about proper management for their forests. The requirements differ on both, and only the American Tree Farm System offers a chance to turn private forests into profitable endeavors.
Most of the landowners at the meeting were there because they see the writing on the wall and know it’s just a matter of time before the mountain pine beetle attacks their trees. These programs offer a chance to keep green and healthy trees flourishing when the attacks occur, Norris told them.
Norris warned that “the Bighorn National Forest has been deemed as high risk for a mountain pine beetle attack.” The lodgepole stands scattered across the Bighorn forests are especially at risk because most are homogenous, meaning they are the same age.
Norris took the landowners on a tour around Billy Creek to illustrate the type of management plans she hopes to help them implement on their own land. Those plans include thinning, overstory removal and clear cuts. Overstory is the uppermost layer of foliage.
Most of the limber pine in the Bighorn National Forest disappeared during a previous mountain pine beetle attack, according to Kurt Allen, entomologist for the Black Hills National Forest, which is located in northeast Wyoming and northwest South Dakota. Yet most of the mountain pine beetles in the Bighorns exist only in endemic levels.
Norris fears that the beetles will rise to epidemic levels, and she hopes to forestall the attacks. Her strategy? Collaborate with private landowners for proper forest stewardship and tree farming on their property.
Buffalo doesn’t have a timber industry, Norris said. The last sawmill left the Bighorns in 2010. The timber industry operates in Montana and the Black Hills. But now, as vast swaths of ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine and limber pine have fallen under the beetles, sawmills are starting to cast an eye over Buffalo’s green lodgepole stands and have contacted Norris about prospects. Norris stands ready to lure those sawmills back to Buffalo.
Meanwhile, just 200 miles away, the Black Hills timber industry still struggles to rebuild from the Jasper fire in 2000, which burned 85,000 acres. The mountain pine beetle then killed many of the surviving trees.
“Timber takes a long time to grow here (in the Black Hills),” said Tom Troxel, executive director of Black Hills Forest Resource. It will take time for the Black Hills forests to yield the same productivity levels.
“We’ve had 450,000 acres affected (by mountain pine beetle),” Allen said, “We’ve seen it somewhat stabilizing this past year.”
But that’s because they are running out of food, which Allen calls “host depletion.”
Most of the trees in the Black Hills are ponderosa pine, and the sawmills are built to handle those bigger trees, according to Troxel. They don’t handle “post and pole,” a term designated for trees with a smaller diameter, such as lodgepole pine.
In Montana, 23 percent of current timber sales in the national forests are under appeal, encumbering contractors from harvesting those trees, said Elizabeth Slown, public affairs specialist for the Northern Region of U.S. Forest Service.
Most of the appeals in Montana’s national forest deal with endangered species, specifically the grizzly bear and Canada lynx.
“We still have iconic species that tend to be lightening rods for litigation,” Slown said.
Several obstacles block the path to timber prosperity in the Buffalo area. First, Buffalo only has one tree farmer, John Eschrich. Second, there are no sawmills or serious contractors nearby to start harvesting the trees, Norris said. Nor are private landowners prepared for tree farming. But the timing may be right for tree farming to take hold.
The meeting proved there’s growing interest from landowners living in the Bighorns to manage their trees for health. Norris wants to take it a step further. Last year, a representative from Neiman Timber, one of the biggest companies in the Black Hills, came to Buffalo to check out the trees. That visit gave Norris an idea for a way to sustain and protect the Bighorn forests and revitalize the lumber industry in Buffalo.
“We’ve got to seek them out, give them something to look for,” Norris said.
Timber sales on state forest land in the Bighorns are conducted regularly, but those lands are surrounded by privately owned forests. Norris saw that working with private landowners would benefit not just them but also State Forestry.
Contractors prefer to harvest healthy green stands. So driving past sickly, infested private forests might deter them from harvesting timber on state forests, Norris said.
Mountain pine beetles don’t discriminate between private, state or national forests. Managing private and state forests for healthy stands will mitigate the attacks, Norris said. It’s an interlaced relationship in which what’s done on private forests also affects state forests and vice versa. The collaboration benefits both parties.
Though there’s no active demand from the timber industry yet, Norris focuses on the long term. She plans on prepping private forests so that when the timber companies from Montana and the Black Hills do arrive, they’ll find healthy trees ripe for harvest and, hopefully, an operating mill designed to handle post and pole.
Norris holds no illusions, however, about the demand for Bighorn timber. The Black Hills timber industry is built around the ponderosa, so converting those mills to handle more post and pole logs versus sawlogs will take a lot of money, according to Troxel. And there isn’t enough industry demand for Wyoming lumber to justify those costs yet, both Troxel and Norris said.
“I would guess they’re thinking about it and looking at it, but no one’s pulled the trigger,” Troxel said.
He does know a few companies in Montana and Rapid City that handle post and pole, but getting them interested might be difficult. Driving to the Bighorns to haul logs to mills in the Black Hills will cost more than the timber available to harvest, Norris said. Increasing gas prices might also stymie interest.
Norris remains optimistic. She is in talks with several landowners and just recently received a grant for mitigating the mountain pine beetle in the Bighorns. She thinks Buffalo and Sheridan will see a blossoming timber industry in a few years.
Meanwhile, the Bighorn Mountains remain a green island in a slowly rising sea of red within the Rocky Mountain region.
“I think a lot of people look at the Bighorns, and it’s some kind of luck of the draw,” Troxel said, “But it does seem like a question of time.”