This week’s newspaper marks the halfway point of the Herald’s “Our Forests” series, a compilation of articles on forest health and wildfire risk in Lake County. Out of all the fascinating information Patrick and I have learned while writing the series, what sticks out most is the interconnected nature of, well, just about everything.
In the introduction to the series, readers learned about the Ute people’s use of fire as a land management tool to renew habitat, in part, to attract the large mammals they hunted. Weeks later, we read about local elk who migrated to recently burned areas on Weston Pass to feast on the new vegetation commonly found in post-wildfire environments. The Ute understood the gourmet preferences of ungulates long ago.
In a different article, we came to understand the pervasiveness of lodgepole pine trees in Lake County — what some call “the weed of our forests.” The ubiquitous and dense clustering of lodgepole pines in Lake County, which keeps sun and precipitation off the forest floor, limits the growth of ground-level vegetation. No wonder elk prefer to graze where the sun shines.
Fish, on the other hand, often migrate away from wildfire and the habitats damaged by its flames. These aquatic species can often swim into nearby tributaries to escape fire, fleeing potentially lethal warm water temperatures and sediment deposits that could clog their gills.
We are not so different than fish — humans too feel the effects of wildfire on our airways. After a smoky summer in Leadville, we all understand the ways wildfire can impact our respiratory systems. And we now know to watch our outdoor activity levels on days the Air Quality Index reaches deep shades of purple, maroon and red.
Just as we plot the quality of the air we breath on a color-coded graph, Lake County Government is working to map the infrastructure we value. From cell towers to reservoirs to historic structures to migration corridors, wildfire protection planning is well underway.
Some of the celebrated structures identified in the county’s wildfire protection mapping, such as the Matchless Mine, are remnants of the industry that first denuded Lake County’s forests, leaving our mountainsides with even-aged woodlands that lack biodiversity.
The timber thieves readers learned about in the introduction to “Our Forests,” who were arrested for the illegal cutting of trees on Christmas Eve in 1881, were part of this forest denudation. The thieves are not so different in the face of the law nowadays than those who leave their campfires unattended. These negligent individuals have changed our landscape in a different way — by starting massive blazes across the American West.
These crimes, and the way they are punished in a court of law, reflect our ever-changing values. The 19th century timber thieves were penalized for stealing a valuable economic resource. Those who spark wildfires in the present day are shamed for the destruction of our property and the beauty of our forests.
As the Herald’s staff continues to write “Our Forests,” we know this web of information will continue to grow, weaving in and out and around and about, fully interconnected.