An Earthly Idea: Make mulch, not fire |

An Earthly Idea: Make mulch, not fire

Thirteen-THOUSAND slash piles. Did I read that correctly in the Nov. 18 Summit Daily? Not 13 or 1,300, but thirteen-THOUSAND slash piles to be open burned on public land in Summit County. Set aside for a moment the obvious inference that an obscene amount of forest — healthy as well as beetle-killed trees — had to be clear-cut to create all that slash. Whether these slash pile burns are completed quickly or take all winter or several winters, they are totally unacceptable for several reasons.

For starters, this slash-pile-burn project is unacceptable on communications and public responsibility grounds. Unless you were signed up for a special alert system, you were not told about the start of the slash burning until the day after it started (and even then only the day of). How many calls did our 911 system have to handle from people who responsibly called to report smoke? What would have happened if people called to report smoke from actual wildfires or home fires? Will this be a problem for emergency response all winter long?

I’ve written before about how our Forest Service officials dominated a Forest Health Task Force nonprofit meeting to avoid questions from a hundred citizens upset about clear-cutting. Throughout their seemingly endless presentations, those officials never once mentioned a major new clear-cut to start the next day. And Forest Service officials told me that I would have to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to ask where and when clear-cutting was planned. Our forest district clearly seems determined to let the citizens who pay their salaries know as little and as late as possible about what they’re doing.

Secondly, this slash-pile burn is grossly unacceptable from an air pollution perspective. We try to keep trash burning by citizens to an absolute minimum. What will 13,000 open fires do to our lungs? We’ve already heard horror stories about dense smoke from the first burn day. People for whom the smoke causes problems are advised to call a Forest Service public affairs officer. What will he tell them: Stay indoors? Leave the county? Don’t worry, be happy?

Thirdly, and most alarmingly, this massive 13,000-pile slash burn is unacceptable from a fire safety perspective. Whether from arson, escaped campfires or trash fires or from prescribed burns gone bad, most of the disastrous Front-Range fires were set by man. The day that we were told about the burn program — day two of the program — there were 60-mph winds within a hundred miles of the burn area. Even without such dangerous weather conditions just around the corner, setting thousands of open fires over however long a period is obviously playing with fire at great risk.

What should be done with all that slash? The obvious possibility (one that I thought was already being followed) would be to truck it to Gypsum to burn in the biomass power plant. If the Forest Service can spend tax-payer dollars to cut down our beautiful and largely healthy trees and truck them to Gypsum to feed this hungry biomass-power monster, why can’t they do it with their ugly slash piles? If we can go door-to-door to pick up slash from homeowners — a good program, why can’t we pick up the clear-cutting slash? Yes, I’ve written that wood combusts incompletely, so generates relatively little energy for the amount of greenhouse gas and toxic pollution generated. But at least the biomass plant generates some energy and hopefully has some air-pollution-control equipment.

Let me suggest another option. Chip the slash in place and spread out the chips to the surrounding area as mulch. This will retard the growth of noxious weeds and flammable grasses. The mulch might even postpone the growth of dense thickets of doghair lodgepole. Then plant aspen in the mulched areas. Aspen are pretty; they grow quickly; and they are relatively fire-resistant. The aspen might even be able to keep out the undesirable lodgepole thickets. If the Forest Service can spend our taxpayer dollars destroying the beautiful forests we already have, surely they can spend a little of our money to plant trees. Let’s not let poor decisions by the Forest Service be obscured by 13,000 smoke bombs.

Howard Brown lives near Silverthorne. While he has extensive environmental policy analysis experience at the federal, state and local levels, he attributes his expertise to observing and asking questions while enjoying Summit County’s beauty.

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