Colorado’s forests are changing colors.

Forest area in Chaffee County, Colorado in need of management
King forest prior to forest health activities

Over the past 20 years, millions of evergreen trees have relinquished their namesake green needles for those that are red, brown or gray before losing them entirely. And autumn gold aspens, grasses and plants sprout to benefit from the moisture and sunlight no longer captured by the dead evergreens.

As residents and visitors to central Colorado witness the dramatic changes to the landscape, several proactive private forest landowners in Chaffee and Lake counties are nurturing their forests and contributing to the state’s economy.

One such landowner, Karen King, is a descendent of early Lake County homesteaders. Her predecessors arrived in time to witness the mining activity of the late 1800s, when most of the trees on the property were cleared and utilized for construction purposes or fuel.

More than a century later, mature lodgepole pines blanket King’s property again. Although most of the trees are within the same age range, their girths vary from 2 inches to 14 inches in diameter. Trees with more space between them were able to grow large, while trees growing tightly together when young stayed small.

New forest, new threats

While this forest has returned, it now faces new threats. One is a leafless, parasitic plant called dwarf mistletoe, now well established and widespread in the lodgepole pines. Tree health is declining as the growing number of dwarf mistletoe infections demand more nourishment from trees with a finite supply of available moisture and nutrients.

In 2001, with a new forest management plan in hand and a Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) forester as her on-site caretaker, King began working toward her goals to improve overall forest health, protect water quality and minimize fire danger. The first forest product sales focused on protecting the dwarf mistletoe-free trees from infection by removing trees that posed an infection risk. Then the focus turned toward removing unhealthy trees.

Young, healthy trees reach for the sky

Today, the number of trees plagued by dwarf mistletoe on King’s property has significantly decreased. With a mosaic of tree densities and ages, King’s land is better protected because a wildfire that burns through now will have less continuous fuel and firefighters will have more control options. Where for decades only pine needles blanketed the forest floor, grasses, forbs and young shrubs are now available as forage for elk, deer and smaller animals. Above, the new generation of young lodgepole pines stretching toward the sky are a healthy green.

While the CSFS orchestrates the forest management work related to King’s goals, contractors implement most activities. The current contractor is Lake County resident Terry Byers. On a sunny winter day, Byers and his wife Darcey pick through a pile of small-diameter logs on the King property, looking for pieces to fill an order placed by a Salida resident. Per the order, they are looking for “imperfect” pieces that translate into interest and character.

The Byers arrived in Lake County in 2016. After 13 years behind the wheel of a commercial truck, Terry was ready to return to a more “physical” profession with outdoor benefits: in this case, cutting trees and selling wood products. He transforms sick, dwarf mistletoe-infected trees into useful products, which allows him to pay King for the wood and cover his own costs to cut and remove the trees.

Byers uses the internet to market the wood and says he receives inquiries statewide from tradesmen, artisans, ranchers, farmers and homeowners.  “What’s going to sell is hard to predict,” he said. “I leave the logs whole until I get an order, and then cut them to the proper length.”

Colorado-grown wood products

Every wood size has a use. Logs over 9 inches in diameter can be sold as small cabin logs or as rough-cut lumber. Trees ranging from 6 to 8 inches in diameter become fence posts or firewood, while 4- to 6-inch diameter trees sell as poles for supporting garden vines. Even smaller-diameter trees become deck rails, fence rails, fence stays or teepee poles. The Salida resident Byers is gathering wood for today will further process the wood he ordered to create balusters, door handles, drawer pulls and furniture accents to sell himself.

Darcey and Terry Byers select wood for a Salida buyer

Thanks to Colorado consumers seeking in-state sources of wood products, in Salida and elsewhere, Byers is able to sell harvested wood and King can thus cost-effectively improve the health of her forest.

“Money generated from tree harvesting is minimal, and is not the reason the trees are cut,” King said. “I want to be a good steward of this forest. However, I must admit seeing photos of installed deck railing made from trees off my land makes me proud.”

Taking care of one’s forestland not only requires a willing landowner.

Consumers must be willing to buy Colorado-grown wood products as we strive to keep the “green” in evergreens growing in the Upper Arkansas River Valley.

One resource to find Colorado-grown wood products is the Colorado Forest Products™ Program, a companion campaign to Colorado Proud™.