‘Theater’ of dead trees | SummitDaily.com

‘Theater’ of dead trees

The U.S. Forest Service’s bark beetle mitigation efforts may change focus in 2011, and move toward attending to the broader scale of falling trees impacting watersheds. That’s according to White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams during his presentation at Thursday’s Forest Service Task Force meeting in Frisco.

Mitigation efforts exploded in 2010, when the epidemic garnered national attention and $30 million of federal funding was set aside in addition to $10 million from the region. Last year, the emphasis was on creating safe roads, trails, recreation areas, power line corridors, ski areas and wildland-urban interfaces.

But dying trees are largely a thing of the past – they’re already dead. Down trees are the latest challenge, Fitzwilliams said.

“We haven’t even seen the

beginning of trees falling yet,” he

said, adding that the effects of an (inevitable) “wind event” would be a “terrifying scenario.”

Yet the jackstraw – a term Forest Service officials use to describe fallen trees – is already forming at an accelerated pace in the Rocky Mountain region. Figures show that, on average, 98,000 affected trees fall daily in the 3.5 million acres of affected forest in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. The affected area is known as the Forest Service region’s “theater of operation.”

That jackstraw means heightened fire risk, and with it, the threat of baked soil. It also can mean erosion and clogged streamflows. Affected watersheds could impact millions of people.

Which is why the Forest Service plans to change its focus to watershed and drainage basin efforts.

In August, Denver Water signed an agreement with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain region to take a step forward in protecting Denver’s water sources. They plan to invest $33 million over five years so local Forest Service offices can address threats to the water supply on more than 38,000 acres of national forest lands.

Local district ranger Jan Cutts said the Dillon Ranger District office’s Ophir Mountain and Breckenridge Forest Health projects are two, already under way, that will work toward that end. About $6 million of the $33 million is to be devoted toward these and other projects in the zones of concern – Dillon Reservoir, Snake River and Ten Mile Creek. The Forest Service also committed to funding an additional 3,500 acres of treatments around and upstream of Dillon Reservoir, of which 1,726 acres are already under contract with 260 completed so far.

“We’re turning that corner and looking at bigger areas like watersheds,” Cutts said.

Meeting participant and GreenWay, LLC owner Randy Piper asked the rhetorical question of whether Denver Water is setting the precedent of putting money toward its water supply and might neighboring states also pony up the money to protect their watersheds?

The evolution of attention to the theater goes beyond watersheds, Fitzwilliams said. Restoring forests after cutting projects is also on the agenda, with a focus on promoting species and age class diversity. Weed control is needed on 4,500 acres forestwide, Fitzwilliams said, with 510 of those acres in the east zone, where Summit County is located.

The changed focus still includes mitigation efforts, Fitzwilliams clarified. Even after applying the $40 million in bark beetle-specific funds in 2010, 82 to 88 percent of work still needs to be done on wildland-urban interfaces, trails and roads.

Recreation sites are the bright spot in the to-do list, mostly because they’re highly accessible and have the most straightforward evaluation processes. More than 60 percent of the work has been done on rec sites in the theater area identified as needing attention, with about 39 left to go.

But there may not be as much money coming to the Rocky Mountain region’s theater, Fitzwilliams said, even though there’s word about $70 million of additional federal funding may be made available for affected forests. The problem is, there is more affected forest in other areas of the Intermountain West this time around.

He expects that about $20 million to $25 million could come to the Rocky Mountain region.

“It is frustrating that we’ve been doing all the work and living in this and now we have to share,” Fitzwilliams said.

The region is devoting another $10 million to the cause, which would bring the total funds for the year to $30 to $35 million. Though, Fitzwilliams said it’s not free money.

“We eviscerate the rest of the region for that money,” he said.

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