Carbon County Commissioner Jerry Paxton (left) meets with log home manufacturer Randy Olson in Encampment, Wyoming.

This is all at risk,” says county Commissioner Jerry Paxton, as we drive through mile after mile of dead and dying lodgepole pine forest in the Sierra Madre Mountains, near the small Wyoming town of Encampment. This retired high school principal is explaining efforts to recruit wood products companies to help his community avoid catastrophe. As in so many communities across the West, thousands of acres of pine beetle-killed trees extend as far as one can see. But it wasn’t just the trees that are at risk.

Paxton is a first term commissioner from an area in Carbon County where the North Platte River emerges from a high Colorado valley. Here the river is a fishing and waterfowl hotspot, and a critical source of irrigation water for fields producing hay to keep cattle operations viable through the winter. Recreation is another pillar of the local economy here and throughout the Medicine Bow National Forest, which is popular for hiking, camping and hunting. All of this is what’s at risk from the massive pine beetle kills on area forests.

Mountain pine beetles are converting these forests into standing dead fuel so rapidly and so extensively that it is feared the next wildfires will be far more intense than ever experienced; so intense that the land – and local economy – might never recover. With little vegetation to hold the soil and winter snowpack, the area could experience spring floods, massive erosion and the drying up of streams during the summer. The impacts would be devastating.

Local leaders are working to attract commercial operations to remove and use the wood before it burns – a tough task in this down economy, where the last two county mills shut down in recent years. With a $1.5 million state business development grant, the town of Encampment has converted its mill site to an industrial park, and attracted a log home manufacturer. A larger co-generation energy plant is being courted to produce gas, electricity, and efficient low-cost heat for the nearby town library and senior center, and there is talk of a wood pellet plant.

Despite these efforts, there are so many dead trees here in Carbon County that few believe their efforts will be nearly enough without fast federal and state action to address a problem far greater than they have the capacity to resolve.

~Dan Smith