Project designed to improve forest health
SUMMIT COUNTY – The biggest project facing Dillon ranger Jamie Connell in the coming year is earning approval for the Upper Blue Stewardship Project under the new White River National Forest Plan, she said.
The Upper Blue Stewardship Project was crafted to improve forest health, wildlife habitat and water quality and to protect elk calving areas and promote responsible recreation. The area covered encompasses 14,000 acres between Frisco, Breckenridge, Highway 9 and the top of the Tenmile Range.
The project includes the elimination of 12 campsites from Miner’s Creek and the creation of 19 new ones outside the wetlands area; building a parking lot at Rainbow Lake; adding an overnight hut near the Breckenridge Nordic Center to the Summit Hut Association’s system; developing six interpretive sites for historical and wildlife areas and reintroducing ponderosa, limber pine and Douglas fir to the forest.
Proposed actions to achieve these goals include tree-thinning along 12 miles of the forest boundary, conducting prescribed burns, thinning trees in the urban-wildland interface and planting trees to improve the diversity of species in the forest.
Officials approved the Environmental Impact Statement in March 2001, but then-Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle withdrew the decision, saying that because the revised forest plan was so close to being completed, it would make more sense to resubmit it under the new guidelines.
Loggers removed trees in the stewardship area from the 1880s to 1910, taking the preferred ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Lodgepole pines have grown up in their stead, creating a monoculture within the forest.
“The lack of diversity affects long-term forest health and wildlife habitat,” said Peech Keller, spokeswoman for the Forest Service. “Homogenous forests are more susceptible to insects, disease and uncontrolled fire spread. These largely unbroken landscapes of single-species forests are nearing the stage where they’re becoming increasingly at risk. Add to this the continuous influx of urban growth, and the risk of catastrophic fire will increase.”
As part of the stewardship project, Connell plans to work with private landowners in the area to allow them to treat their property and the adjoining public land to reduce fire hazards, improve diversity and protect wildlife habitat. That aspect of the project also must undergo National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) scrutiny – one of the environmental protection acts environmentalists say is threatened by a bill U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis drafted and a U.S. House committee approved Tuesday afternoon.
That bill, which heads to the full House floor this month, will allow tree thinning where the forest blends with homes to reduce fire danger. It also will reduce the amount of time Forest Service officials are required to solicit comments from the public.
“NEPA is very important for us in Summit County because we have such an active public,” she said. “I’ll be interested to see what the outcome of the legislation is. In some cases, short comment periods may be appropriate. But we could go with longer comment periods if we felt it necessary.”
Other efforts are under way to thin, forested areas that abut homes. Connell is working with a private fence post and pole contractor to thin areas near condo complexes near the top of Wildernest. Unlike loggers, who typically cut large trees, people who cut trees for post and pole sales prefer smaller-diameter trees for fence posts, Connell said.
“We could sell a lot of teepee poles in Summit County,” Connell said. “By cutting some of these trees, it solves some of the problems we have in Summit County.”
People who want to cut trees for firewood can obtain cutting permits – $20 for two cords of wood – and help reduce the amount of fuels in the forest at the same time.
The Forest Service will host its Christmas tree permit program again, most likely on the steep hillside between Old Dillon Reservoir and Dillon Dam Road, where numerous trees are growing back after an old timber sale. Allowing people to remove trees for their holiday decor will help diversify the ages of the remaining trees.
“This doesn’t get thousands of acres accomplished, but we’re making progress,” Connell said.
Prescribed burns still are sitting on the back burner. After a long summer in which extreme fire danger precluded controlled burns, the moisture levels now are too high.
Connell said she expects to get approval this week to burn a 10-acre area on Lake Hill between the Old Dillon Reservoir and Interstate 70. Approval is one thing, but burning is another, as Connell knows from the long wait she’s endured for an approved burn on Swan Mountain.
“We could burn Swan Mountain at any time, but now the moisture’s too high,” Connell said. “It’s a real challenge. At low moistures, when we need to burn, the rest of the state is in crisis. I’d anticipate that’d be the case of most prescribed burns in Summit County. When the moment comes, we have to jump.”
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