About 50 people attended last week’s Forest Health Task Force meeting at the Silverthorne public library, enough to make police interrupt and ask people to move their cars off the street.
The task force, a part of a local nonprofit land trust organization called The Greenlands Reserve, has met regularly for about the last eight years. Originally established by environmental engineer Howard Hallman because of the pine beetle epidemic, the group’s goals have shifted more toward creating grassroots collaboration between the public and officials involved in forest management.
A handful of Forest Service representatives, a couple of Wildfire Council members and residents of Breckenridge, Frisco, Silverthorne and unincorporated Summit County attended the meeting Thursday, April 17.
Residents posed questions and expressed concerns to foresters about whether clear-cutting as a management strategy reduces susceptibility to insects and disease and lowers fire hazard. Many who spoke at the meeting seemed to prefer that the agency leave the forest alone.
“This all seems a bit much to me,” said Bruce Campbell, who owns property above West Sky Ranch, near Golden Horseshoe. “In my opinion, the majority of the forest is pretty healthy.”
“Mother Nature’s taking care of herself,” said Silverthorne resident Howard Brown.
At the same time, everyone agreed reducing wildfire hazard should be a common goal.
The “800-pound gorilla in the room” was homeowners insurance, Hallman said after the meeting. If people comply with preventive recommendations, their insurance premiums could go down, he said, and if fire hazards grow or change, companies might refuse to insure people. Insurance companies don’t have to have public forums.
No one mentioned insurance during the meeting.
Referring to a recent letter from Gov. John Hickenlooper, Hallman said soon local national forest land could be designated “insect and disease treatment areas,” which would mean fewer environmental regulatory hoops and potentially faster, more collaborative forest treatment projects.
The Forest Service’s vegetation management practices, which include clear-cutting, not only aim to reduce susceptibility to insects, disease and wildfire but also try to salvage dead and damaged timber and recoup their financial value, explained Cary Green, a White River National Forest timber management assistant.
Much of the meeting revolved around concern over clear-cutting near Ophir Mountain.
How final is the Ophir Mountain project? There’s nothing we can do? asked Ronni Dempsey, a resident in the Lake View Meadows subdivision near Summit High School.
It’s final, Green responded. The decision has been signed.
Even though three-quarters of the trees are alive and thriving, asked Don Cacace, no changes can be made? Maybe the process needs to be put on hold and the money redirected, he said.
“Have all of the timber contracts already been signed?” asked Karen Little, president of the Bills Ranch Homeowners Association, who said she worried about sediment in Miners Creek.
The process isn’t good if it can’t be changed at this point, said Little’s husband, Ben.
Government should respond to changes and the public, Brown said, and not “just blindly follow a path.” He called clear-cutting “the exact wrong thing to do” for forest health and biodiversity. At least “do it away from the trails,” he said, 400 feet from either side. Bare, unprotected areas are dangerous for the trails’ hikers and skiers, he said.
During the Ophir Mountain project’s public comment period two years ago, Green responded, people said if the beetle damage isn’t that bad, don’t treat those areas.
“We took that to heart,” he said, but the agency still needs to collect the dead timber.
“I can’t understand why the Forest Service doesn’t pay more attention to things that they helped create,” said Mary Hart, a Breckenridge business owner, naming not just the Peaks Trail but also part of the Colorado Trail and other unrecognized community-loved trails affected by clear-cutting.
She said clear-cutting creates “just this meadow of sticks everywhere,” which seems like a greater fire hazard.
“Nothing is a done deal until it’s done,” she said.
Hallman and task force member Brad Piehl, a forest hydrologist and environmental consultant with JW Associates, tried to steer public comment away from Ophir Mountain.
“You might want that, but that’s not what we’re trying to do,” Piehl said. The purpose of the meeting is to work toward community understanding, especially between the Forest Service and the public.
Hallman said the Forest Service looks at diversity on a larger scale than most Summit County residents, who might notice the number of different species in their backyards or the areas they drive, bike, walk and hike through.
The task force plans to host training days at the end of May for residents who want to learn how to monitor forest health in their own backyards or on local public lands. The data collected by the volunteer force could supplement what the Forest Service already does.
Many at the meeting said the public should be better informed and involved earlier in the forest treatment process.
Hallman said important questions to discuss going forward are the size of treatment projects and their location.
“We’re kind of tapering down as far as future forest management projects within Summit County,” Green said.
But pointing to a map dated 2004 to 2015, he described future projects not pictured, specifically in the Keystone and Swan Mountain areas.
He mentioned a past project that involved clear-cutting between Eagles Nest Wilderness and Silverthorne neighborhoods. After that, he said, some residents asked why the Forest Service didn’t cut more to reduce the fire hazard. People at the meeting grumbled and laughed.
“I think people behaved themselves,” said Jim Collins, a Breckenridge resident, to Piehl after the meeting. “There were some hints of anger, but it didn’t come out.”
Cynthia Keller, environmental coordinator for the Dillon Ranger District, said the meeting was “a really good start for collaboration.”
She described how people supported the Ophir Mountain project more before the pine needles turned from red to grey.
“The red was just so in your face,” she said. “People were coming to us and saying, ‘Please do something.’”
After most people had left the meeting, Green and forester Brett Crary asked themselves if people don’t want clear-cutting what do they want? Where should we spend money instead?
“People don’t want people logging in the backcountry,” Crary told Cacace as they discussed selling cut, dead trees to bioenergy plants, and they don’t want it close to home either.
“Everybody thinks there’s some kind of incentive” to clear-cut, Crary said. “I’m not allowed to take bribes. Obviously we’re doing what we think is best for the land.”
For more information about the task force, visit its website at summitpinebeetle.org.
“Everybody thinks there’s some kind of incentive” to clear-cut. “I’m not allowed to take bribes. Obviously we’re doing what we think is best for the land.”
U.S. Forest Service