Ophir Mountain forest clear-cutting underway near Summit High School
Sections of a shallow-rooting species of pine are being clear-cut near Summit High School on Highway 9 south of Frisco to help areas affected by beetle kill recover and to reduce wildfire risk.
Brett Crary, a silviculturist with the U.S. Forest Service, worked on the Ophir Mountain Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project plan, which outlined the fuels-reduction work to be done near Frisco. He said the plan was modified based on public feedback after the project was proposed in 2010. Approved in 2011, the plan authorized reducing fuels and regenerating lodgepole pine forest in an approximately 1,500-acre area affected by the ongoing mountain pine beetle epidemic.
Now that the mitigation work has started, some Summit County citizens have expressed concerns about the scope of the project and the idea of clear-cutting areas near popular trails.
“Based on public feedback (in 2010) we reduced the size of some treatment areas,” Crary said. “We reduced a significant amount over in the Miner’s Creek area; we dropped a number of acres over there.”
He said the project began by using interface systems to map and look at the stands of trees in the area — sections that are uniform in species composition, size, age, arrangement and condition, and that are distinguished from the forest as a whole or other adjoining areas.
When it was proposed, the Ophir project went through an environmental review process that looked at the anticipated effects of the plan compared with doing nothing.
“We try to remain balanced,” Crary said. “We try to respond to public comment, but we do have other groups, including the Forest Service, that needs to do wildfire mitigation.”
Pam Motley, spokeswoman for West Range Reclamation, the logging company working on the Ophir project, said the clear-cutting near Summit High School — Ophir North — is part of the company’s 10-year stewardship contract with the U.S. Forest Service for the White River National Forest.
“The Forest Service identifies these areas (for clear-cutting); we are never making those decisions ourselves,” she said.
Because the Ophir North area is populated with lodgepole pine trees, it’s not really possible to just remove the dead trees with thinning or patch-cutting, Crary said.
One concern when areas of shallow-rooting lodgepole pines are thinned is “blowdown” of the trees that are left standing.
“They grow up really tight and work as a community to support each other,” he said. “With a partial harvest, you might get that wind throw, which can then cost a lot of money and disturb the soil even more.”
“If we could (thin and not clear-cut), we would,” Motley said.
Crary said if there is a lot of blowdown in an area, the Forest Service has to go back in and clear those trees, because they can contribute to hazardous fuel loading on the ground. Re-entering the stand, he said, causes further soil compaction.
“We have design features to try to minimize that, but with repeated entries there’s more impact than just going in once,” he said.
Crary said every few hundred years, a natural occurrence, such as a fire or avalanche, would normally reinitiate forest growth.
“To clear-cut … mimics that natural disturbance,” he said.
In the Frisco area, a fire would not be the appropriate tool to use, Crary said. It could have negative impacts on the watershed people rely on and on animal habitats.
Crary said right after harvesting the trees, the stand usually looks the worst because the Forest Service must leave branches on the ground, to help for stability and nutrients. After about one year, he said, grasses begin to grow, and after two years, small tree seedlings reemerge. Five years down the road, the seedlings will become more viable above the grass, and the trees will reach maximum height after 60 to 80 years, he said.
“With the work we are doing on Ophir, those stands for treatment, are climax lodgepole pine, meaning they are a dry enough site without disturbance — whether fire or active forest management — they couldn’t really develop into a mixed conifer forest; it’s too hot and too dry.”
Motley said Orphir North will most likely take a few more weeks to complete. The company will then move to an area closer to Breckenridge, Ophir East, to begin work there.
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