Sections of an aspen tree grove snapped almost instantly after a feller buncher equipped with industrial clamps and a giant hot saw slowly made its way through grayscale forestland.
In its awesome grip, this machine can collect and cut multiple trees less than 12 inches above their base — all in one fell swoop, according to seasoned logger Tanner Shelley.
“It cuts through the trees like butter,” Shelley said of the feller buncher, which was busy working up Four Mile Road on a bitter cold Thursday morning.
Shelley is a manager of timber company West Range Forest Products LLC. This Gypsum-based operation is currently engaged in a stewardship contract with the U.S. Forest Service. It’s tasked with logging out sections of forestland beside a trail system near Sunlight Mountain Resort.
This is why many skiers and snowboarders finishing up on the slopes are now getting stuck behind massive semi trucks picturesquely hauling timber toward Glenwood Springs proper.
Every Monday through Friday, there are about 20 trucks a day that ascend and descend Four Mile Road. They either carry logs of spruce and fir or, less noticeably, up to 22 tons of chipped up aspen timber.
“It all goes to the Gypsum biomass plant,” Shelley said of the chipped aspen wood. “We turn it into green energy, and that all goes to Holy Cross (Energy).”
Shelley is referring to Colorado’s very first woody biomass power plant, a $56 million project built in Gypsum, in 2013. Its main mission is to convert beetle-kill trees into electricity.
On the flipside, spruce-fir are logged and trucked to a mill in Monstrose, where it’s converted into 2-by-4-foot studs, U.S. Forester Chris McDonald said.
“We have good purchasers and contractors in the area that are in need of product,” McDonald said. “They typically bid on our wood.”
The two projects exemplify a symbiotic relationship between loggers and the White River National Forest. Loggers are invited to turn a profit while older trees are cut to make way for regeneration.
Once this contract terminates in 2026, up to 932 acres of forestland will have been logged. This includes 109 acres east and south of Fourmile Park, and another 823 acres closer to the Pitkin County line.
McDonald said, historically, this area near Four Mile Road has been logged quite a bit.
“There was a sawmill just up the road, up until the ‘80s,” he said. “We had projects salvaging the dead spruce off of Four Mile and Park area, from 2005 to 2014,” he said. “And then most of our work progressed to the east side of the forest, addressing the pine beetle.”
Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner said logging operations like these may look a little rough at first, with heavy equipment clearing out trees.
“The thing that’s hard to think about is, what’s this look like five years down the road?” he said. “Come back in five years and I’ll show you what it looks like here.”
Removing mature aspen stands stimulates its root system and encourages diversity in age. Diversity in age for Aspen trees makes them stronger and less susceptible to disturbances, like the highly destructive invasion of pine beetle, Warner said.
“What you get is, this intense response of new, small, baby aspen trees coming up,” he said. “Within a few years, they’ll be four-, five-, six-feet tall.”
In the meantime, the White River National Forest on Friday enacted several closures to snowmobiles and other vehicles in the Fourmile area due to continuing logging operations, a news release states.
“Fourmile Road (FSR 300) will be closed to all vehicles, including snowmobiles, at the gate about ½-mile above the snowmobile parking area,” the release states. “This is right after the road passes through last year’s aspen cutting, where skiers typically park to ski Williams Peak.”
In addition to this, the first two miles of the Sunlight to Powderhorn Trail will be closed because that section crosses areas where logging will occur, the release states. Snowmobilers can use alternate routes such as the Fourmile Trail and the Pipeline Trail to travel around both closures and resume travel on the Fourmile Road/Sunlight-to-Powderhorn Trail.
“We originally did not anticipate that we would need to close the road,” Warner said. “But with the large amount of snow and the huge sidewalls that’s developed there, sight distances have been decreased so much that it’s a challenge to operate a snowmobile and have log trucks on the road at the same time.”
Back at Shelley’s operation, it’s taking about 12-15 minutes to load each new truck on its way to Gypsum. Some of the newly cut aspen are as old as 100 years. Soon enough, young trees will sprout in their place.
“When we got trucks, it gets pretty chaotic on the landing with moving parts, the skitter coming in and out and trees swinging,” Shelley said. “It’s all enjoyable.”
Post Independent western Garfield County reporter and Assistant Editor Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or email@example.com