Summit County group petitions for halt of Ophir Mountain clear-cutting
Clear-cutting on Summit County’s national forest land is the debate that won’t die.
After a mountain pine beetle epidemic decimated the county’s lodgepole pine stands in less than a decade, the U.S. Forest Service began eying swaths of dead trees close to towns, homes, power lines and municipal water sources.
In the name of wildfire prevention, the Forest Service decided in 2011 to clear-cut a 1,500-acre area between Breckenridge and Frisco known as Ophir Mountain. It’s four years later, however, and the slow implementation of the harvest continues to stir up outcry from a small group of residents.
On Tuesday, April 14, a handful of locals presented a petition to the Summit County Board of County Commissioners asking them to request the Forest Service delay clear-cutting around the popular Peaks Trail, which runs through what is officially called the Ophir Mountain Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project.
Silverthorne area resident Howard Brown spearheaded the petition, and 62 people have signed it. Among the petitioners are Mary Ellen Gilliland, a longtime resident and author of local hiking and history books, and Currie Craven, co-founder and board president of the nonprofit Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness.
“It’s the exact wrong thing to do to clear-cut on all grounds, particularly for natural ecology but also for fire, for recreation, for tourism,” Brown said. “Just because the plan was written doesn’t mean it has to be followed.”
The petition will likely have little to no impact as local government and fire officials agree with foresters on the benefits of clear-cutting in that area.
Commissioner Dan Gibbs said though a few dozen residents object to the clear-cuts, the priority shared by county government as well as the towns and the Forest Service, is protecting human lives, property and critical infrastructure of power lines, water supplies and roads.
‘A CLIMATE OF FEAR’
Brown said he went to the commissioners because he and others have repeatedly expressed their concerns to an unreceptive Forest Service.
Brown got involved in the clear-cutting debate after he started living year-round in Summit four years ago and volunteered to help Gilliland with an update to her hiking guidebook.
She was told not to include some trails because the Forest Service would be cutting them, Brown said, so he hiked them, asked questions and read about the natural history and ecology in Summit.
Clear-cutting around the trails he likes soon became his pet issue, and he argues against the primary reasoning established by authorities: wildfire prevention and mitigation.
“We’ve already cut all the areas that are anywhere near housing that could possibly be justified on defensible space or a staging area for fire protection,” he said.
Brown visited Summit from Denver on the weekends for 10 years before moving to the county full time. He didn’t provide input in 2010 when the Forest Service sought public comments on the Ophir Mountain project.
“We’re all guilty of not having spoken out back then,” he said. “But it was a climate of fear that all the trees were going to die and they were all going to burn up.”
Before Denver, Brown lived for 10 years in Washington, D.C., where he spent five years working as an environmental policy analyst for the Congressional Research Service and five years as director of the nonprofit now known as American Rivers.
For 17 years, he wrote for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, translating the latest energy research from scientific jargon so industry leaders could understand and consider developing new technologies.
Now he is upset that the Forest Service pays a hauler, West Range Reclamation, to remove trees in Summit.
“They’re spending taxpayer dollars to destroy the forest,” he said. “This is not a short-term mistake. This is a 100-year mistake.”
Brown called the petition a plea with the commissioners to step in.
Mary Parrott, a full-time Keystone resident for the last six years, spoke in agreement with Brown to the commissioners, citing research that beetle-affected forests regenerate faster and with more diversity if dead trees are left standing to provide shade and nutrients for young spruce and fir.
“We’d like another shot at getting a delay on this and some input from other people,” said Parrott, who has owned property in Summit since 1983. “They’re just doing it all over the country in lots of places where there’s not any structures.”
AGREE TO DISAGREE
Dillon Ranger District head Bill Jackson said the Forest Service’s Ophir Mountain clear-cutting project achieves multiple objectives for the agency.
The area was identified as high-priority for fuel reduction by the county’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan, adopted in 2006 after an effort that included local governments, river basin planning commissioners, firefighting organizations and foresters.
Ophir Mountain and the Peaks Trail are within the plan’s wildland-urban interface (WUI), commonly defined as within a half-mile of housing, and it’s easy to access, Jackson said.
Hopefully a large wildfire will never threaten people in Summit, Jackson said, but if one does, “everybody will be asking, did we do enough?”
Plus the clear-cuts there help fulfill the Forest Service’s 10-year stewardship contract awarded in 2012 to West Range Reclamation as well as the agency’s agreements with Denver Water and Xcel Energy to protect utility infrastructure and Dillon Reservoir from potential wildfires.
Of Summit’s 315,000 acres of national forest land, the Forest Service is targeting 12,000 to 13,000 acres of lodgepole pine forest for active management since the beetle epidemic, Jackson said. The agency has already harvested or put under contract 10,000 acres.
Over the years, foresters have attended Forest Health Task Force meetings, explained their research and responded to questions and challenges about their management strategies.
“We listen to what’s said at the meetings and try to provide answers as much as we can,” Jackson said. “Some of that just isn’t accepted or there’s this mistrust of any kind of Forest Service expertise.”
The task force, led by Howard Hallman and Brad Piehl, has recruited residents to monitor national forest plots in their backyards, and those folks often say what they see doesn’t match Forest Service observations.
Before finalizing the Ophir Mountain decision, Jackson said, the agency spent two years analyzing impacts and receiving public input, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The agency received support from the general public, he said, as well as formal letters of support from the county commission, the town of Breckenridge, Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue and the county Wildfire Council.
Gibbs, who chairs the wildfire council, said he hiked the Peaks Trail with Brown in the fall and agreed to disagree on the clear-cuts.
Gibbs said he meets with agency representatives monthly and has worked with the Forest Service to reduce secondary hazards created by clear-cutting.
“We have to be very cautious. The environment is a major economic driver for us,” he said. However, “I have no reason to think that the U.S. Forest Service is trying to ruin Summit County.”
Jackson, who moved to Summit and became district ranger three months ago, said the agency sometimes revisits its analyses if it receives new research, decides to do something differently or a species is listed as threatened or endangered. But halting a planned clear-cut is not the best use of taxpayer money, he said.
“A lot of these sales are already under contract, and defaulting on a contract is a fairly large deal and is not something that I would take lightly,” he said.
Clear-cuts are always smaller than planned, he said. The Forest Service decided not to cut some parts around Peaks Trail and will do trail maintenance and clean-up work there this summer.
Mike Zobbe, a longtime Breckenridge resident and president of the Fat Tire Society, said he didn’t personally agree with all the clear-cuts. However, he said, “in the long run, it’s better than a big fire or dead trees laying on the ground all across the trail.”
Don Parsons, another longtime Summit resident and a retired surgeon, said clear-cutting seems like the agency’s only tool to mitigate wildfire.
He signed the petition about six months ago, he said, not so much because he opposed the clear-cutting but because he hoped the petition would draw attention to the issue.
“It’s a debate that needs to be engaged in, and I think it needs to be a more open conversation,” he said.
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