Lesli Allison: Our Changing Forests

by Lesli Allison, Executive Director, Western Landowners Alliance Category:

Louis Bacon‘s Trinchera Blanca Foundation recently hosted a roundtable discussion in southern Colorado about best practices in forest health management with partners and other practitioners in the area. A thought leader in this conversation is Lesli Allison, founding member and Executive Director of the Western Landowners Alliance and the Chama Peak Land Alliance. Through both organizations, Lesli has worked extensively with private landowners and multiple stakeholders to advance conservation, sustain working lands and support rural communities. 

When I was a young child, my family lived in a cabin in a tiny inholding in the middle of a national forest. It was nestled in the bottom of a narrow canyon, three miles up a rugged two-track road. With the exception of a few generally vacant summer cabins, we had no neighbors. We also had no television, no phone and no radio.  My mother taught school and left early each day. My father stayed at home, trying to write the next great American novel.

Because he needed to concentrate, my father tossed me out of the house whenever the weather was fair and I was left to myself and to the big national forest that surrounded us. On these days, I set out into the woods with my dog Skippy in search of bones and caves and treasures. The forest held many wonders and I still remember looking with fascination at the little yellow spiders in the gooseberry bushes, trying to catch darting cutthroat trout in the stream and the towering ponderosa pines that smelled like vanilla and chocolate ice cream when I pressed my nose into their bark. These woods were my home and I felt a deep ownership of their many special places.

One day I climbed up out of the canyon to a place I often ventured and was utterly shocked at what I found. A logging company had appeared out of nowhere and the forest I knew along the canyon rim was gone.  Everywhere I looked were stumps and logging slash. Used oil filters from the big machines and discarded soda and beer cans lay about. The soil was torn and mounded. Newly bulldozed roads ran every which way. My grief lasted for years.

It was then a strange experience, some two decades later, to find myself initiating and overseeing logging projects in a very similar forest on a ranch I was managing. Every time we would go into a peaceful stand of trees with the sun streaming in, the insects buzzing, the forest in lazy, unsuspecting repose and give the thumbs up for the heavy machines and chainsaws to start their work, I had to pause and check myself, knowing the aftermath would for a time look very much like that canyon rim so many years earlier. Our purpose here, however, was different. On the ranch, we were thinning the forests under careful management to try to save them.

What I had learned in the intervening years was that the logging I encountered as a child was, in fact, a poorly managed industrial-scale harvest by a large corporation with no attachment to that or any particular forest. I had also learned, however, that most forests in the region were neither pristine nor healthy. A century of fire suppression, past logging practices, climate change and extended drought have weakened these forests to the point where they are now more broadly susceptible to extreme fire events, disease and insect outbreaks. Many stands are unnaturally dense, with trees competing intensely for light and water, often crowding out vegetation on the forest floor and leaving little forage for wildlife.

When I was younger, I would never in a million years have thought I would find myself saying that the forest needs to be managed, but in many places they do. We’ve suppressed the natural fires that used to keep forests thinned and healthy.  We’ve logged out the biggest and best trees, leaving the weaker, more fire prone species behind as a seed source.  We’ve expanded residential development into forested areas and altered wildlife patterns. The little creek I used to stalk cutthroat trout in is dry most of the time now, partly due to a changing climate and partly because there are so many trees intercepting the snow and using up the water.

From loggers and foresters to environmentalists and public land managers, I suspect many of us in the Intermountain West have evolved in our thinking about forests. I don’t know anyone who advocates for a return to the industrial excesses of the past.  I don’t know many who still cling to the idea that no tree should ever be cut either. We also better understand the role of fire in these ecosystems, and the need to restore it wherever we can.

What’s promising is that forest managers today, both public and private, understand that maintaining ecological health should be the first principle in managing natural forests. As a society, there are two things we can do to help:

  1. Re-invest in the forests and watersheds that sustain us. The USDA currently operates with a fraction of the designated funding needed. Last year alone, $700 million was taken from Forest Service Management accounts to cover emergency fire fighting costs.  Congress needs to enact the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which will fund emergency fire needs like we treat other national emergencies, and not at the cost of long-term restoration management.  Monies need to be increased and designated for pro-active forest health actions, including support for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration and Hazards Fuels Reductions programs. Pro-active management is far less expensive than fire suppression and disaster recovery costs and will save taxpayers dollars and devastating losses in the long run.
  2. Support and participate in collaborative efforts by landowners, community stakeholders and agency partners to manage forests in innovative ways. Place-based collaborative conservation is proving successful in many landscapes and offers a way in which people can work together constructively to address the complex and pressing challenges of stewarding our shared natural resources.

Bringing our forests back to health should be one of our nation’s top priorities.

Ecological health and a strong economy go hand in hand. The abundant freshwater, wildlife and open space that well managed forests provide are the necessities and amenities that will fuel prosperity in the American West today and sustain our children and grandchildren into the future.

Lesli Allison, is a founding member and Executive Director of the Western Landowners Alliance. She is also a founding member and most recently executive director of the Chama Peak Land Alliance. Through both organizations, Lesli has worked extensively with private landowners and multiple stakeholders to advance conservation, sustain working lands and support rural communities. 

Louis Bacon and The Trinchera Blanca Foundation are proud to partner with the Western Landowners Alliance.