Some public lands with beetle kill in Summit County soon could be fast-tracked for U.S. Forest Service treatment under a new rule.
The federal agency would use the rule to designate land affected by insect and disease epidemics all over the country for expedited review, which would mean less environmental analysis and more required community collaboration.
“Folks have been asking for a long time how can we get this work done faster without undermining some of the environmental safeguards,” said Noah Koerper, Central Mountains regional director for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
Bennet chairs the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources, which oversees the management of all 193 million acres of public lands controlled by the U.S. Forest Service.
The new authority comes from Bennet’s National Forest Insect and Disease Treatment Act, signed into law in February as part of the new Farm Bill, with the goals of reducing wildfire risk to communities and protecting natural resources.
According to a Forest Service survey released in January, the mountain pine beetle epidemic in Colorado declined while the spruce beetle outbreak grew.
Mountain pine beetle slowed again in 2013, with the lowest acreage of active infestation observed in 15 years. Statewide, mountain pine beetle was active on 97,000 acres in 2013, which brings the total infestation to 3.4 million acres since the first signs of the outbreak in 1996.
The spruce beetle outbreak was active on 398,000 acres across the state, expanding by 216,000 new acres in 2013. The total area affected by this beetle since 1996 reached more than 1.1 million acres.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper named the Dillon Ranger District, part of the White River National Forest land that makes up three-quarters of Summit County, as a candidate for Forest Service treatment, which could mean a variety of forest management strategies.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said Wednesday, April 30, that he received recommendations from 36 governors, including Hickenlooper, for areas the Forest Service should prioritize under this expedited authority. Tidwell plans to respond to governors on where he may be able to use the authority by the end of May.
The White River National Forest hasn’t identified any specific projects yet, spokeswoman Aurora Cutler said, but the agency will look for ways to make the best use of the authority.
The subject was brought up at the last meeting of the Summit County Wildfire Council in March, said Jim Curnuttte, the county’s community development director, who acted as chairman in the absence of County Commissioner Dan Gibbs. The council decided not to create a list of areas recommended for treatment at that time.
Summit County emergency management director Joel Cochran said he generally supports fuel reduction projects in Summit because they decrease wildfire hazard.
The potential 3,000 acres that could be affected, he said, is close to the size of the Ophir Mountain project that has created some controversy among residents.
At the last meeting of the local organization called the Forest Health Task Force, director Howard Hallman provided a letter from Hickenlooper to the National Forest System associate deputy chief.
In the letter, dated April 7, Hickenlooper wrote that Colorado welcomes the new approach and understands that “designation does not mean that every acre within a designated treatment area will be treated.” Projects would be 3,000 acres or smaller, occur at any time after they’re designated and exclude wilderness areas, he wrote.
With the amount of acreage that could be treated, forest hydrologist Brad Piehl said he has concerns about whether expedited impact studies will be enough to properly analyze and lessen negative effects on wildlife, recreation, water supply and other areas the agency considers. He said he hopes the required extra collaboration will compensate.
“It’s not clear exactly what collaboration means or what the standard for that would be,” said Piehl, an environmental consultant and Forest Health Task Force member, but he hopes for more community collaboration before the Forest Service makes decisions in Summit.
Hallman said how the agency defines adequate collaboration could be a point of contention.
“It’s so important that the Forest Service include people early and often at the beginning of a planning process, even in the pre-planning stage,” he said.
In Summit, he said, the agency should collaborate with and get support from at least three community groups focused on national forest land: the Forest Health Task Force, the Wildfire Council and the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative.
The next Forest Health Task Force meeting, originally scheduled for Wednesday, May 7, has been moved to Thursday, May 29, at 6:30 p.m. at the Frisco Community Center (SOS Center) at Third Avenue and Granite Street.
“Folks have been asking for a long time how can we get this work done faster without undermining some of the environmental safeguards.”
Central Mountains regional director for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet