Beetle extermination plan appealed
MINTURN – The Forest Service says Eagle County’s pine beetle problem has grown to “outbreak” levels, but an appeal has challenged plans to combat the infestation.In meetings this week, local officials will try to come to an agreement with opponents of their plan, the “Vail Valley Forest Health Project.”The plan, approved in March, lays out a proposal for about 3,000 acres of Forest Service land stretching from near Vail to near Wildridge. It details removal of dead and dying lodgepole pine trees that are infested with pine beetles as well as the thinning of healthy lodgepoles to try to slow the spread of the beetles. In addition, it calls for thinning of aspen trees and shrubs to reduce the risk of wildfire. Prescribed burns would be used for shrublands.Projects that are part of the plan are supposed to start this summer above West Vail’s Intermountain neighborhood. The appeals could delay the start of those projects, said Cal Wettstein, district ranger for the White River National Forest.One appeal, submitted by Michael J. Heaphy and Melissa L. Decker of Heaphy/Decker law firm in Minturn, said the plan has “negligible” benefits and is harmful to forests. Also, the scope and scale of the plan are poorly defined, the appeal said. It also said the plan’s treatments for lodgepole pines and aspen stands are not effective, and that the Forest Service didn’t adequately explore what would happen if nothing at all is done. Neither Heaphy nor Decker could be reached for comment.The other challenger, Richard L. Schnelle, who has an Avon post office box, said the project fails to address safety concerns in regards to the use of controlled burns. Schnelle is not listed in the phone book.If meetings this week don’t resolve the dispute, the appeals will go to the Forest Service’s regional office to be decided within two to three weeks, Wettstein said. If the decision is upheld, the Forest Service may wind up in court.Vail and the Forest Service are close to finalizing a deal that will provide more than $1 million for work in forests near West Vail over the next five years.When the project began in 2000, experts expected the beetles to kill 50 percent to 70 percent of mature lodgepole pine in the project area. But now, experts say, the bugs have killed 80 percent to 90 percent in areas above the Intermountain neighborhood.”When we started this (environmental evaluation) 2 1/2 years ago, we didn’t foresee the level of beetle mortality we’re seeing now,” Wettstein said.
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