What Do Wood Piles And Silence Of The Birds Have In Common?

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Forester Larry Hettinger has been walking through the woods of Rim Country for 30 years now.

And everything has changed.

It's gotten very quiet.

Used to be, he'd hear birds whistling and trilling everywhere he went.

Used to be, he'd hear squirrels chittering and chattering, even deep in the forest.

Used to be, he'd come upon deer and elk and other wildlife everywhere -- especially in the meadows, deep in grass.

But these days, whenever he hears birds singing, he figures he must be getting near the highway or one of the many private homes that have sprung up in the woods.

And that brings us to the Forest Service's just-announced experiment with letting people fill the beds of their pickups with firewood gleaned from one of the endless slash piles that have resulted from an ambitious effort to create a fire break around Rim County towns and settlements.

The silence of the birds and the free firewood both grow from the same root: The disastrous unhinging of the forest ecosystem as a result of more than a century of fire suppression and misguided management.

Essentially, we have transformed a fire-resistant forest with an average of maybe 100 trees per acre and lots of grass and wildlife into a silent, shaded, overstocked tree thicket with maybe 1,000 stunted trees per acre. Wildlife that used to take advantage of meadows, grass on the forest floor and varied patches of trees created by intermittent, low-intensity fires now must concentrate near the openings in the choking forest canopy --which is often along highways and inholdings.

So now that we've knocked askew the balance that nature used to maintain, we're forced to rely on crude mechanical thinning to protect the towns we've built so people can enjoy the forest we've damaged.

The attempt to find a way to make use of those great piles of wood, points the way to the future -- which is to return in some measure to the past.

It is certainly true enough that we created the problem by turning the forest into a tree farm without understanding the consequences. Certainly, the management practices that traded old growth trees for doghair thickets ought to give anyone pause in arguing that we human beings are smart enough to take over management of anything so complicated as a living forest.

But truth be told, we're back to that infamous Pottery Barn adage -- we broke it, it's on us to fix it.

And that should start with re-inventing the timber industry as a sustainable part of the solution. Getting propane-lamenting Paysonites to raid those slash piles is a great idea, but it's just a sapling planted on an eroded slope.

Time now to deliberately nurture a new timber industry that can turn a profit on the massive amount of wood we now urgently need to clear from the forest. Those slash piles total 30 to 50 tons of wood and brush on every single acre -- multiplied by the millions. It's true that we can't afford to go back to cutting the big trees --which will form the spine of the restored ecosystem. But we urgently need the mills that can produce wood pellets, slats, plywood, cogeneration plants and a host of other economically viable businesses that can make use of the super-abundance of the wrong kind of trees on our forest.

It's a daunting project -- requiring more foresight and maturity than we human beings normally show.

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