Forest health eyed in the heart of Summit County
summit daily news
SUMMIT COUNTY ” A draft U.S. Forest Service plan to reduce the threat of wildfires and combat mountain pine beetles in the heart of Summit County is on the table, and the agency is looking for public comment through the end of June.
The Dillon Reservoir forest health project would clear dead and beetle infested lodgepole pines across several thousand acres around Keystone, Dillon and Frisco. The proposal includes 20 acres of patch cuts, the removal of older trees from about 305 acres and reduction of hazardous fuels from about 715 acres in the wildland-urban interface.
Treatments aimed at maintaining and regenerating aspen forests are planned on about 300 acres. Aspen groves add to forest diversity and can act as natural fire breaks.
The total project area covers about 26,000 acres of both private and national forest lands, with all activities listed under the plan to occurring on federal tracts.
“We’ll probably have a narrower focus after we get some comments,” said Forest Service project leader Cary Green, describing it as a long-term effort aimed at creating a healthy forest with mixed age classes of trees. “We’re looking at future management. You can’t look at this short-term,” he said. “We want young stands … We’ll just have to deal with the scenic effects.”
Based on experience and existing science, Green expects the lodgepole forests to regenerate themselves, as sunlight reaches the ground and opens the seed-bearing cones. In some of the buffer zones near residential areas, the treatment will include trying to keep that regeneration to a manageable density, to avoid facing the same issues 75 years from now, he said.
The overall goal of the project is to promote and restore healthy forests and minimize future environmental effects of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. In some areas, the majority of lodgepole pines within a treatment area may be removed. The work is expected to last between three and five years, with about 2,000 log-hauling trucks passing through local towns during that time.
The Forest Service estimates that about 12-14 miles of new temporary roads would be constructed and then decommissioned after harvest operations. About 2-4 miles of existing non-system roads would be upgraded and then decommissioned after harvesting.
Green said that mileage could change based on public comments and the final alternative selected. The agency hopes to complete the planning this year and begin doing the work in 2007.
There is some potential for commercial timber harvest in some of the proposed treatments. Other areas could be opened to public use post-and-pole and firewood harvesting, while in still others, the Forest Service might simply have to pay to get rid of the fuels. Green said he is cautiously optimistic that movement on the political front will lead to adequate funding for the project over the span of several years.
County Commissioner Bill Wallace said he’s been pleased with the efforts the Forest Service has made in tackling the wildfire risks associated with the mountain pine beetle epidemic, singling out Dillon District Ranger Rick Newton’s willingness to cooperate closely with local governments and property owners.
The project is being planned within the framework of the federal Healthy Forest Restoration Act, which gives the Forest Service streamlined authority under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for forest management activities intended to reduce wildfire risks to people, communities and the environment.
Aerial surveys of the project area show the dramatic spread of pine beetle infestation, which grew from 378 acres in 1999 to 5,953 acres in 2005. Based on those surveys, the Forest estimates that beetles killed more than 20,000 trees in 2004, up from just a several hundred trees just a few years earlier.
About 90 percent of the lodgepole forest in the area is classified as mature, with trees more than 80 years old. With the proposed treatment, the Forest Service hopes to move toward a “desired conditon,” with no more than 50 percent of the lodgepoles in the mature stage, and 50 percent in the intermediate (30 to 80 years old) and seedling/sapling stages (less than 30).
The Dillon Reservoir project includes a flexible adaptive management approach, enabling the Forest Service to adjust the timing, combination and intensity of treatments in “at-risk” areas as conditions change.
“We know we have a mountain pine beetle outbreak, but it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen,” Green said. “We don’t want our hands to be tied.”
If there’s a deep freeze this winter that kills a majority of the beetles, then the Forest Service might be able to reduce the amount of thinning and clear-cutting in some of the proposed treatment areas. Conversely, if the infestation worsens, the agency might have to consider more extensive clearing in some of the areas, he explained.
Some of the key areas slated for treatment in the draft plan include Keystone Gulch and some forest areas adjacent to Keystone Ranch and Summit Cove; around Keystone Resort; forests around I-70 and Dillon Dam Road between Silverthorne and Frisco; Windy Point and Prospector Campgrounds and the Frisco Peninsula, and adaptive management in the riparian zone between Straight Creek and I-70 in Dillon Valley.
Detailed draft maps of the proposed project treatment areas are online at http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/whiteriver/projects.
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