Monday, August 6, 2012

The Rebounding High Country

Timberline Spring    9x12
Recent plein air excursions this summer have brought invigorating subject matter - the high country of the mountains with glacial lakes and fresh streams. The usual suspects have been my cohorts, Sue McCullough and Coni Grant. Recently we have been joined by Karen Bonnie, a talented painter living outside of Del Norte.
Due to our busy schedules we usually try to go out once a week and knock out a morning painting- or often the painting knocks us out - ha! rimshot!  A morning session usually affords the afternoon for other activities- like trying to fix the morning painting.
So to get into the high country from our lowland residences requires something close to us and relatively quick to drive to. This requires black top and then good gravel roads. This led us to the well- roaded uplands of what used to be the timber country in the San Juan Mountains. These are the very places I avoided with disdain in my younger years. This disdain became a point of contemplation for me and has led me to some reminiscing about my earlier perceptions.
As a " for instance" this picture is a pretty dynamic scene but is deceptive. It was taken from the edge of an old logging road. The forest in the foreground and all around where the picture was taken were extensively logged probably 30 years ago.
Likewise this picture, also taken from a decades-old timber road. Timber cuts are all around.

This part of the San Juan Mountains lent itself to intense logging because of its gentle topography making it a prime target for timber companies in the 60's and 70's when these forests were cut- heavily.
When I started in forest land conservation efforts, places like these were in full production and of little interest to those of us seeking to preserve the virgin lands that were still around- but threatened by impending dozers and chain saws. Our focus was on areas that were remote and more challenging- and were still wilderness because all of the easiest terrains with the biggest trees had already been cut or were about to be. Even so, the timber machine was big back then and the Rio Grande National Forest was in the tree cutting business big time. Their opposition to land preservation was well- funded and formidible. In spite of this and due to public support, we were still able to preserve large acreages.
The hardest parcels to protect were those areas that still had big trees; Engelmann spruce is still the prefered milling tree for this region. They grow straight and tall and run up to the very limits of trees at the timberline. Their habitat is covered in snow most of the year and the growing season short. The prize trees were at least 200 years old. Although the forest service and timber companies tried to convince everyone that they were practicing sustainable harvest techniques, there were no word-dances that could gloss over the fact that they were in fact "mining" trees.
My recent wanderings in these cut-over areas has acquainted me with some amazing tree stumps of once behemoth spruces the likes of which will never be seen again for generations.
Ironically, the threat to many remaining big spruces in these mountains is not the chain-saw but the spruce bark beetle.
But I digress.

We were able to garner public support and through bipartisan legislation (yes- at one time this was actually possible!) many pristine areas were brought into protection as wilderness. And the timber industry still managed to flourish- for a time.
Hard to imagine that now- the biggest sawmill in the region is now a vacant lot in South Fork. The mill failed when cheaper southern US and foreign tree markets opened up and not because of those nasty environmentalists as was the common lament.

 I am revisiting areas that were of little interest to me back then but am now discovering pockets of splendid beauty - vignettes that are engaging if your eye does not wander too far.
I am also seeing the slow regeneration of these forests. Saplings sprouting amongst the stumps and the once younger trees now entering tree adulthood.
What I will not see are the big trees again in my lifetime.

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