Though Ms. Frizzle was nowhere to be found, about a dozen Summit County residents hopped into two large white government vans and got to pretend they were going on a Magic School Bus field trip Tuesday.
Hosted by the Colorado State University extension office, the wildfire mitigation field trip educated interested residents about Forest Service management practices as well as the county’s community chipping program.
First, the roughly 10 people on the field trip visited the Dickey Day Use Recreation Area, just north of Summit High School off Highway 9, to compare how the land looks a few months after a clear-cut and a few years after a clear-cut.
Dan Schroder, the county’s extension agent, touched on the confusion, anger and sadness that some residents have expressed in recent months over clear-cuts in the Ophir Mountain area.
“Cutting trees — it’s an emotional state we find ourselves in,” he said.
White River National Forest silviculturalist Brett Crary talked about why and how the Forest Service cuts trees and manages forests, not only for wildfire protection but also for habitat and watershed reasons.
“This looks awful,” said Thea Tupper, of Frisco, pointing to the clear-cut finished this spring on the land across Highway 9 and then to the grassy hills north of the road where a clear-cut was completed in 2011, “but this isn’t bad.”
Compared with meetings like the one the Forest Health Task Force held in May, when residents voiced frustrations about Forest Service management actions, she said, the field trip was more educational.
She told the Forest Service representatives, “It’s better to attend a meeting like this than a — pardon my French — bitch session.”
The group then checked out the Breckenridge site off Airport Road being used to store wood chips from the county’s community chipping program.
The program, in its first year, has been lauded as successful by local officials because of resident participation rates much higher than expected.
Besides creating defensible space around people’s homes, the goal of the program is to remind people about wildfire risk and community protection measures. Schroder said he doesn’t want residents to grow complacent now that the mountain pine beetle epidemic has subsided.
“We can clearly see that reducing the amount of flammable materials is occurring,” he said.
The county had to bring on five contractors whose crews were out collecting the slash at the same time, he said, and one house put out 85 trees’ worth.
“The second-home owners are absolutely participating,” he added, by either hiring workers from a distance to collect material or coming out this summer to handle it themselves.
He was glad to reach that segment of the community, he said, as only 30 percent of the county’s homes are occupied year-round.
Half the funding for the $125,000 chipping program came from some of the county’s Wildfire Council grant fund, created through a voter-approved tax measure, and the other $62,500 was funded through a grant from the Department of Natural Resources.
Matt Thompson, a planner with the town of Breckenridge, said no money is exchanged when the chips are hauled to the bioenergy plant in Gypsum.
“Depending on how you look at it, we’re either giving it away for free or the guy is taking it away for free,” he said.
A few years ago, he said, the town did a similar collection of wood material that grew so large people started calling it Peak 11.
Back then, the town struggled to clear that pile before the lot was used in late fall for skier overflow parking and snow storage. This summer, he explained, the town has been more proactive to ensure that time crunch is not an issue.
Because of the high rate of participation, the county will continue the program next summer. Schroder hopes to double the amount collected with more funding from a larger Department of Natural Resources grant.
This year, he said, “I didn’t realize that I so under-asked.”
Next summer he will change the way the slash is collected. Instead of doing two rounds through the county over 16 weeks, the contractors will do one pass over 12 weeks and will break the county into smaller areas.
Schroder said he recently spoke with Colorado State University climate scientists, who told him they predict Summit will look more like Albuquerque in the next 10 years. A drier, hotter climate and longer warm season would mean increased wildfire risk, he said, so being proactive about wildfire protection would be even more important.
In the van returning from the field trip, Tupper returned to the topic of clear-cuts.
“The thing that hits people the most is the trails,” she said. “We get pretty territorial over the trails.”
Schroder told the group something about clear-cuts he heard from Paul Cada, assistant district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service.
“The most expensive, biggest homes are on the biggest clear-cuts: golf courses and ski runs,” Schroder said Cada told him.