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Agents of Change

Forest Management
Power Generation
Population Growth
Reintroduction of Fire
Reintroduction of Native Species
Uranium Mining
Water Development

Special Topics

Arroyo Cutting
Native Use of Fire

biotaForest Management Policies

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Mixed-conifers and aspens. Photo by Keith Pohs.

President Theodore Roosevelt's decision to set aside vast tracts of western highland forests was in response to widespread exploitation by logging operations that began to sweep across the West in the late 1870s. He specifically intended for these "forest reserves" to ensure watershed protection and wildlife preservation. Since that time, varying political, social, economic and scientific factors have resulted in changes in forest management policies that have had a variety of intended and unintended consequences.

Gifford Pinchot became head of the Division of Forestry in 1898 and under President Roosevelt was named Chief Forester of the redefined U.S. Forest Service. National forest management was guided by Pinchot’s principle, “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.” During this era, the term "conservation" was used to describe the use of natural resources wisely and efficiently, as opposed to "preservationism," the protection of intact wilderness areas from development, a sentiment that was still uncommon, but growing.  During his government service, the number of national forests increased from 32 in 1898 to 149 in 1910 for a total of 193 million acres.

The indiscriminate cutting practices of the late 1800s and early 1900s gave way to selective logging by the mid-1900s, and even-aged management from the 1960s through the 1980s. Modern silviculture practices emphasize more selective, uneven-aged cutting, but even in the 1980s forest harvests tended to degrade the forest and its habitats by removing all old-growth trees and building extensive road networks. Today logging on public lands on the Colorado Plateau is virtually at a standstill under a hail of litigation.

The active suppression of all fires in forests by management agency personnel began about 1910, but two decades of intensive livestock grazing had already caused natural surface fires to virtually cease. A climatic pulse of good moisture in the first few decades of the 20th century led to forests with far more trees than before. Today many ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests on the Colorado Plateau are overrun with "doghair thickets," dense clusters of stunted trees infested with bark beetles, fungi, and dwarf mistletoe. Fire, when it does occur, has begun to be intense and, more and more frequently, catastrophic.

Old-growth forests have virtually disappeared from the Colorado Plateau, and, until 20 years ago, snags (dead trees) were systematically removed as fire and forest health hazards. Large-diameter snags serve important ecological roles as cavity-nesting sites for many breeding birds and several species of bats.

Today we are undergoing a revolution in forest management policy and, to a lesser, extent, practices. "Smoky the Bear Was Wrong," reads one bumper sticker, as consensus builds that a combination of controlled burning and mechanical thinning is not only necessary, but essential. Many forest land managers fear that ultimately it will be Nature—seriously out of balance—who will set policy, in the form of immense regional wildfires.

See also: Ponderosa Pine Fire Ecology


Changed Southwestern Forests: Resource effects and management remedies. Over 150 years of occupancy by northern Europeans has markedly changed vegetative conditions in the Southwest. Less fire due to grazing and fire suppression triggered a shift to forests with very high tree densities, which in turn contributed to destructive forest fires. Options to deal with these changes include prescribed fire, thinning and timber harvest to mimic natural disturbances and conditions. However, there are barriers to implementing these activities on a scale large enough to have a significant benefit. Adapted from a published journal article by Marlin Johnson.

Contribution of Roads to Forest Fragmentation. Increasingly, previously extensive, continuous tracts of forest are being reduced to widely dispersed patches of remnant forest vegetation by logging and road-building, but few measures of the effects of roads on forest fragmentation are available. This study looks at the importance of roads in delineating and quantifying landscape structure, including the proportion of the landscape occupied by edge habitat, and compares the effects of roads and clearcut logging on forest fragmentation. Adapted from a published journal article by Rebecca A. Reed et al.

Where have all the grasslands gone? Numerous ecological studies across the Southwest have documented the decline in herbaceous vegetation (grasses and non-woody flowering plants) while forests thicken and brush invades. Documenting the changes in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, ecologist Craig Allen considers the evidence that these patterns are tied to changes in land use history, primarily livestock grazing and fire suppression.

References and Resources:

Alexander, T. G. 1987. The rise of multiple-use management in the intermountain west: A history of Region 4 of the Forest Service.  Report FS-399. USDA Forest Service, 267 pp.

deBuys, W. 1985. Enchantment and exploitation: the life and hard times of a New Mexico mountain range. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. 394 pp.

Covington, W. W. 1990. Fire effects on ponderosa pine soils and their management implications. Pp. 105-111 In: Effects of fire management of southwestern natural resources. General Technical Report RM-191. USDA Forest Service, Fort Collins, CO.

Covington, W. W., and M. M. Moore. 1994. Southwestern ponderosa pine forest structure: changes since Euro­American settlement. Journal of Forestry 92:39­47.

Fiedler, C. E. and Cully, J. F., Jr. 1995. A silvicultural approach to develop Mexican spotted owl habitat in southwest forests. Western Journal of Applied Forestry 10: 144-148.

Gomez, A. R. and Tiller, V. E. V. 1990. Fort Apache forestry: A history of timber management and forest protection on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, 1870-1985. Tiller Research, Albuquerque, NM, 212 pp.

Harrington, M. G. and Sackett, S. S. 1990. Using fire as a management tool in southwestern ponderosa pine. Pp. 122-133 In: Effects of fire management of southwestern natural resources. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fort Collins, CO.

Harrod, R. J., McRae, B. H. and Hartl, W. E. 1999. Historical stand reconstruction in ponderosa pine forests to guide silvicultural prescriptions. Forest Ecology and Management 114: 433-446.

Hejl, S. J. 1994. Human-induced changes in bird populations in coniferous forests in western North America during the past 100 years. Studies in Avian Biology 15:232­246.

Hinton, W. K. 1988. The Dixie National Forest: Managing an alpine forest in an arid setting. US Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 295 pp.

Jones, J. R. and DeByle, N. V. 1985. Fire. Pp. 77–81 In: DeByle, N. V. and Winokur, R. P., editors. Aspen: Ecology and management in the western United States. Report RM–119. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fort Collins, CO.

Jones, T. R. 1974. Silviculture of southwestern mixed conifers and aspen: The status of our knowledge. Report RM–122. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fort Collins, CO, 44 pp.

Kaufmann, M. R., Moir, W. H. and Covington, W. W. 1992. The status of knowledge of old-growth forest ecology and management in the central and southern Rocky Mountains and Southwest. Pp. 231-277 In: Mooney, H. A., Bonnicksen, T. M., Christensen, N. L., Lotan, J. E. and Reiners, W. A., editors. Old-growth forests in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions. General Technical Report RM-213. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fort Collins, CO.

Lauver, M. E. 1983. A history of the use and management of the forested lands of Arizona, 1862-1936. M.S. Thesis. University of Arizona, Tucson, 221 pp.

Madany, M. H. and West, N. E. 1983. Livestock grazing - fire regime interactions within montane forests of Zion National Park, Utah. Ecology 64: 661-667.

Myers, L. A. and Martin, E. C. 1963. Fifty years progress in converting virgin southwestern ponderosa pine to managed stands. Journal of Forestry 61: 583-586.

Olsen, W. C. The Core Historical Literature of Agriculture. <> 12/15/2000.

Pearson, G. A. 1950. Management of ponderosa pine in the southwest. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Monograph 6: 218.

Reynolds, R. T., Block, W. M. and Boyce, S. A., Jr. 1996. Using ecological relationships of wildlife as templates for restoring southwestern forests. In: Covington, W. W. and Wagner, P. K., editors. Adaptive ecosystem restoration and management: Restoration of Cordilleran conifer landscapes in North America. General Technical Report RM-278. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fort Collins, CO.

Sackett, S. S. 1980. Reducing natural ponderosa pine fuels using prescribed fire: Two case studies. Research Note RM-392. USDA Forest Service, Fort Collins, CO.

Sackett, S. S., S. Haase, and M. G. Harrington. 1994. Restoration of southwestern ponderosa pine ecosystems with fire. Pages 115­121 in W. W. Covington and L. F. DeBano, technical coordinators. Sustainable ecological systems: implementing an ecological approach to land management. U.S. Forest Service General Technical Report RM-247.

Sampson, F. B., E. L. Adams, S. Hamilton, S. P. Nealey, R. Steele, and D. Van De Graaff. 1994. Assessing forest ecosystem health in the inland West. Forest Policy Center, Washington, D.C. 19 pp.

Schubert, G. H. 1974. Silviculture of southwestern ponderosa pine: The-status-of -our-knowledge. Research Paper RM-123. USDA Forest Service, Fort Collins, CO.

Stein, S. J. 1988. Explanations of the imbalanced age structure and scattered distribution of ponderosa pine within a high-elevation mixed coniferous forest. Forest Ecology and Management 25: 139-153.

Swetnam, T. W. and Lynch, A. M. 1993. Multi-century, regional-scale patterns of western spruce budworm history. Ecological Monographs 63: 399-424.

USDA Forest Service. 1974. Opportunities for increasing water yields and other multiple use values on ponderosa pine forest lands.Research Paper RM-129. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fort Collins, CO.

Wagner, M. R. 1994. The healthy multiple-use forest ecosystem: An impossible dream. Pp. 185-188 In: Covington, W. W. and DeBano, L. F., editors. Sustainable ecological systems: Implementing an ecological approach to land management. General Technical Report RM-247. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fort Collins, CO.

Williams, J. 1996. Aligning land management objectives with ecological processes in fire-dependent forests. Pp. 32-34 In: Covington, W. and Wagner, P. K., editors. Conference on Adaptive Ecosystem Restoration and Management: Restoration of Cordilleran Conifer Landscapes of North America: Flagstaff, AZ, June 6-8, 1996. General Technical Report RM-GTR-278. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fort Collins, CO.