CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — As crews continue to face off against a fast-moving wildfire in northern Colorado, some in the timber industry say the area’s fire danger has been heightened by U.S. Forest Service policies and an economy that discourages them from harvesting millions of acres of dead trees that stand ready to burn.
The High Park Fire has burned about 80 square miles west of Fort Collins, Colo. It is 15 to 20 percent contained but has been active on its west flank, where there are many beetle-killed trees, fire officials said.
As bad as the fire has been, timber experts say the forests of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming stand primed for more devastating burns.
Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said poor forest conditions in that area have increased fire danger.
“We do have a real unhealthy forest situation out there,” Crapser said. “We have too many trees per acre … and we need to look at ways to thin some of those forests out.”
A 2011 aerial survey showed about 4.6 million acres in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota have been affected by mountain pine beetles since the first signs of the outbreak in 1996. That’s up from about 4.3 million acres in 2010.
The Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, which straddles the Colorado-Wyoming border west of Fort Collins, has been particularly hard-hit by beetles. The Forest Service imposed fire restrictions on the Wyoming side of the forest Thursday.
Traditionally, logging companies handle the job of thinning forests. But high fuel costs, low housing starts and, some lumber operators say, Forest Service policy have combined to sandbag their industry in recent years.
Intermountain Resources runs a large sawmill in Montrose, Colo., on the state’s western slope. It has been one of the largest logging operators in southern Colorado and northern Wyoming. But the company has been in court-ordered receivership since May 2010, and it plans to auction its mill equipment next month.
Pat Donovan, receiver for Intermountain Resources, said Thursday the equipment will be sold with the expectation that a new owner will keep the mill operating. He said the mill employs 90 workers, while another 90 or so drivers and loggers rely on it for jobs.
Intermountain was the largest holder of Forest Service logging contracts in Colorado and southern Wyoming when it went into receivership, Donovan said. “Those contracts were all acquired when the housing market was better, demand for lumber was higher, prices for lumber were higher, diesel fuel prices were lower,” he said.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., intervened, and the Forest Service last summer agreed to let Intermountain and other area operators out of their logging contracts without paying damages.
The federal economic stimulus program also helped put the squeeze on Intermountain before it went into receivership, Donovan said.
The Forest Service granted “stewardship” contracts in recent years in which it paid some logging operators up to $2,000 an acre to remove beetle-killed trees, Donovan said. But at the same time, he said, the Forest Service refused to release Intermountain from contracts that required it to pay up to $800 an acre to log. He said Intermountain bid on stewardship contracts but didn’t end up getting any.
A major logging contractor on the Wyoming side of the forest likewise says he believes some Forest Service policies have hampered removal of dead trees.
Thompson Logging of Kamas, Utah, has operated a saw mill in Encampment, a small town in southern Wyoming, since early 2011. Terry Thompson of the company said the mill employs about 30 people.
Despite fire conditions, Thompson said the Forest Service is charging fees to move logging trucks through the forest, making timber cutting there less attractive.
Thompson said his company is cutting a timber sale near Steamboat Springs, Colo., and that the Forest Service charges $168 per truckload to use 40 miles of road to reach the mill in Encampment. There’s no fee for using the state highway — but that’s a 130-mile trip.
“Hell, they should be paying us to take that stuff out of there,” Thompson said.
Larry Sandoval, a spokesman for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in Laramie, emphasized that the timber industry is a valuable partner with the Forest Service in reducing fuel hazards. He said the agency understands the importance of keeping the industry viable.
Nonetheless, Sandoval said the Forest Service has to look at existing regulatory requirements. He said the agency doesn’t have the latitude to wave road maintenance requirements or unilaterally change contracts.
“We understand that timber values have dropped dramatically with the beetle epidemic. That’s been ongoing for the last several years, and that’s made their profit margins very narrow,” Sandoval said. “We’re sympathetic to their situation, particularly because we rely on the timber industry to accomplish a lot of important work.”
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