Restoration Through Ecological Forestry—Jake Barker

As we examine the complex system of forests, management, and wood products in Wyoming, we are finding that the mosaic of forest type, ownership, and industry infrastructure drive past, current, and future forest restoration. Wyoming’s forests are scattered across the state in five main pockets. Northwestern Wyoming is home to the cultural and ecological behemoth of Yellowstone National Park and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. A variety of forest types cascade down from the alpine peaks and plateaus of the Rocky Mountains, with regions of lodgepole pine, whitebark pine, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, and Douglas fir, and much of it is designated wilderness. The north-central and south-central forests, predominantly lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce, and the eastern forests of ponderosa pine, are smaller but connect across state lines to neighboring forests. While our study is focusing on the forestland within the National Forest System (NFS), there are areas of tribal and private ownership as well.

Complex ecological and meteorological stressors are driving changes in disturbance regimes and therefore forest composition and type across Wyoming.  With increasing fire risk and various pest outbreaks, most National Forests are revamping their efforts on promoting forest health and resilience, especially in areas of ecological importance and near communities and infrastructure. Much of Wyoming’s forestland is hard to access and inevitably hard to manage, but intentional forest management interventions in key locations may help reduce wildfire severity, promote wildlife habitat, and restore forests to pre-fire suppression conditions.

The Wyoming wood products industry is at a point of significant transition with reductions in National Forest harvest targets and low timber prices, but it remains an essential component for implementing forest restoration projects, both in traditional timber-producing areas and in other regions of the state. The majority of the timber supply in the state comes from northeast and southern Wyoming. As of 2017, the 28 Wyoming mills were operating at 70% capacity, processing wood harvested in Wyoming and imported from surrounding states. The industry is significantly impacted by the limited timber supply, National Forest harvest targets, and hauling distances. Given the small size of the economy, the addition or loss of a single mill has substantial ramifications for state processing capacity. Forest sector work creates much needed jobs for rural Wyoming communities, and while the industry and harvesting trends evolve year to year, forestry and mill professionals are essential for implementing landscape-scale forest restoration and processing the removed forest material.

Pile burning on a recent sale in Carbon County, WY. Photo from Medicine Bow-Routt NF and Thunder Basin NG (@FS_MBRTB).