Thinning out Summit County forests will need public buy-in, experts say
The pine beetle epidemic left tens of thousands of dead trees in its wake — and hundreds of acres of potential fuel for wildfires.
While professionals agree the expired trees should be removed — along with healthy trees and shrubs near power lines, water supplies, houses and other buildings — to protect the public from wildfire, getting people to buy into the process can be difficult.
Local government officials, the state and U.S. Forest Service, local nonprofits, utility companies and homeowners associations came together on Thursday afternoon to share information about how they’ve been tackling forest health issues. The gathering was the first of four meetings designed for Summit County forest stakeholder groups to coordinate resources.
“One of the challenges we’ve had is about how to get the message out, and find ways to better dovetail with each other within Summit County,” said Forest Health Task Force founder and meeting organizer Howard Hallman.
At the meeting stakeholders identified successes to date — including the design and implementation of Summit County’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan — along with the barriers to attaining their forest health goals.
“It’s important to understand the scale and complexity of the problem even just within Summit County,” said Ross Willmore, the East Zone fire management officer in the White River National Forest.
The lack of public education was identified as a hurdle to efforts to dodge the consequences of a catastrophic wildfire. Community Wildfire Protection Program members said they’ve had some success tackling parts of the wildfire plan identified as having the highest risk and greatest consequences associated with wildfires, but a lot of work remains to be done to make Summit County forests healthier and safer for residents.
“Some areas still need public buy-in where it could be highly contentious to have thinning projects,” county Commissioner Dan Gibbs said.
The history of wildfires throughout the West and the aftermath of the mountain pine beetle epidemic are evidence that forests must no longer be thought of as a wild and vast landscapes; they must actively be managed. The problem is getting people to change the way they think about the forests, said Dan Schroder, a natural resources extension agent for Colorado State University.
“A big part of my job has been to get people to think differently about the landscape. Hiding yourself behind the veil of trees really isn’t how we do it anymore,” he said.
“The primary challenge is to continue to educate folks and have them hear the message,” said Sam Kirk, president of the Friends of the Lower Blue River organization. “I think we just need to keep beating the drum and let people know what is necessary to be prepared for a wildfire evacuation and about wildfire mitigation.”
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