Dillon Ranger District, US Forest Service prepare to update White River National Forest’s management plan
More than 20 years since its last update, the White River National Forest is poised to make major revisions to its management plan that spans roughly 2.3 million acres of public land.
During a Dec. 14 meeting hosted by the all-volunteer group Forest Health Task Force, Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi outlined a five-year plan that seeks to improve the ways his district — which includes much of Summit County — and the Forest Service will tend to the sprawling White River National Forest.
Federal law mandates each Forest Service district implement a Land and Resource Management Plan to guide any activities related to natural resources. Those plans, according to Bianchi, are supposed to be updated every 10 to 15 years. But public outreach, litigation and bureaucracy can weigh down that process, Bianchi said.
“It’s a large and involved process to get a plan revised,” Bianchi said. “It’s a challenge to get the ball moving.”
The exact objectives of the revised plan are still a work in progress, according to Bianchi, but broader goals have been outlined. One is to increase restoration of forest space damaged by fires, insects, disease and invasive species by prioritizing strategies like prescribed burns that can lessen the spread of wildfires and lead to healthier soil in the future.
Other goals are to allow the plan to respond to modern issues that weren’t present when it was last updated in 2002, such as the threat of the mountain pine beetle and the impacts of e-bikes.
The plan’s revisions are also expected to focus on the impacts of climate change, something Bianchi said “wasn’t a big conversation in 2002.”
Howard Hallman, a volunteer and founding member for the Forest Health Task Force, said climate change mitigation should be a crucial pillar of whatever direction Bianchi and the Forest Service take.
“The impact of climate change on things like insect infestations and so on is probably going to be greater in the future,” Hallman said. “With that in mind, I think it’s really important that the plan is being revised.”
Hallman said he would like to see more investment in strategies like sequestering carbon, especially as tree thinning temporarily reduces the amount of carbon that can be captured in a given area.
But he also said thinning will be crucial to protecting nearby residences from disasters such as wildfires. In particular, Hallman expects the roughly 32 acres of White River National Forest land near the Wildernest neighborhood in Silverthorne to be a target of thinning projects.
“We hope that will be an example to provide information to the Forest Service and to also engage the community members locally,” Hallman said. “It’s very important, looking forward, what grows back.”
The impacts of wildfires have been a growing concern for Colorado leaders. In a September letter to Frank Beum, a regional forester for the Rocky Mountain region, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse urged him to allocate more federal funding for fire mitigation to the White River National Forest.
That funding, Neguse wrote, could come from a slice of the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure law passed by Congress last year — $50 billion of which is designated for mitigating droughts, heat, floods and wildfires, according to a White House news release.
“High-elevation forests in the Upper Colorado River Basin are perilously vulnerable to wildfire, which is creating substantial flood risks to the built environment — including water supply infrastructure,” Neguse wrote, “impacting the quality and quantity of water supplies, impairing aquatic ecosystems and degrading cherished recreational resources.”
According to Bianchi, the Forest Service has identified several hot spots for wildfire activity nationwide where it will prioritize funding. Colorado’s Front Range — which includes parts of Fort Collins, Boulder and Colorado Springs — has been identified as one of those areas. But higher-elevation areas, such as Summit County, have not. This means areas like White River are eligible for far less federal funding, Bianchi said.
In his letter to the regional Forest Service head, Neguse wrote that he appreciates the “much-needed attention that the agency is providing to Colorado’s Front Range” but called for “high priority consideration to wildfire mitigation in the White River National Forest and the western portion of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests.”
Bianchi said the Dillon district has been able to secure about $125,000 from the federal infrastructure bill and said the district is “preparing for any opportunity to receive funding as it becomes available.” But how much money the district will need for its part of the management plan over the next five years is hard to say, Bianchi said.
The district draws funding from a variety of sources including local entities like Summit County and the Denver Water Department. Bianchi said his district has received about $5.8 million from Denver Water since 2011 and about $1 million from the county since 2019.
As an example of the spending to come, the district could need as much as $2 million for actions such as thinning roughly 951 acres of forest land, Bianchi said.
With the land management plan’s review process expected to begin next year, Bianchi said more details will come into focus as well as opportunities for public input.
“We are just in the beginning stages,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work still to figure out the timelines and the steps and how to get everyone involved.”
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