Agency continues to evolve while focusing on managing U.S. forests
Since the United States Forest Service was first established in 1905, the process of managing the nation's forests has undergone and continues to undergo significant changes.
And while no two forests are exactly the same, policies concerning forest fires remained largely uniform for decades.
Known as suppression, the policy of putting out all fires in the forest, in combination with a variety of other factors has created many of the problems that now face current forest managers.
Without the small fires that naturally start in forests across the western United States, trees and underbrush can become very dense and combined with drought situations, large fires can result.
The situation also has the potential to encourage the spread of bark beetles. Lodge pole pine bark beetles have been spreading in other areas. Locally, however, spruce trees were the dominate species. But the trees have mostly died out since they were decimated by spruce beetles beginning around 25 years ago.
"It started in the early 1980s around Twelve Mile Canyon in roadless areas and just moved north following the spruce," said Diane Cote of the local Forest Service tree staff.
About 90 percent of the spruce trees larger than 16 inches were dead by around 15 years ago and the beetle population collapsed.
The spruce trees have started to come back. But Cote indicated that "it might take 70 years to get back to what it was and, even then, it will be a young forest."
With so many dead trees, the Forest Service has had to deal with new issues that arise from the new dynamics of the forest. And while logging is a big issue elsewhere, it does take place in many of the dead areas locally. But with the increased landslide potential that has arisen from greater moisture in the soil, most of the logging must be done carefully.
"The soil here is naturally very unstable, but when we are salvaging the bug kill spruce we just don't build new roads to it and use helicopters if needed," said Cote, "We haven't had any landslides from logging."
Besides the increased potential for landslides, vast areas of dead spruce can also pose a significant threat to those who use the forest to recreate. In and around established camp sites, the Forest service periodically removes fallen timber, or leaning "widow makers," from the area, however, many forest patrons tend to not use these sites and go find their own and don't look for dangerous trees.
"Dead spruce stands as long as 60 years," said Cote and since the beetle kill happened, "we're starting to have a lot of spruce fall."
Recently the Forest Service has been doing some prescribed burns locally as a management tool to keep the relative ages of different forests diverse. Before the beetle kill the relative age of the spruce forest was about 180 to 200 years old according to Cote, who added that the consistent ages were likely from a previous beetle kill. With so many trees around the same age, the beetles were able to attack as said above, about 90 percent of the living trees.
Many factors have also played into beetles spreading rapidly across many forests in the west, including climate change, the increasing settlement of forest areas, and the suppression of fires, according to Cote, but at the moment, it is still difficult to determine what will be the best course of action as to the management of the forests locally and nationally.