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July 13, 2014
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Report documents how forest still drives Aspen-area economy

Timber sales were up, gas production was down, livestock grazing was steady and tourism continued to be the dominant use on the White River National Forest last year.

The forest supervisor’s office released its 2013 Annual Report last week, highlighting how the 2.28 million acres of public land was used. The White River National Forest surrounds Aspen and is intermingled with private lands throughout Pitkin County.

The 13-page document is crammed with statistics on everything from how many skiers, leaf peepers, dirt bikers and summer hikers the forests hosts, to how many miles of stream habitat was improved.

Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the eye-opening stats for him were the $2.9 million in in-kind contributions and volunteer labor, along with $336,000 in cash contributions from partners. The forest forged 59 new partnership agreements with groups assisting in operations or maintenance of the forest. That boosted the total partnership agreements to 170.

“When you see the support by volunteers and partners, I always say, ‘Holy cow — what amazing communities we work in,’” Fitzwilliams said.

The Forest Service cannot manage the lands alone, but the work is important, he said. Volunteers realize that and are answering the call, he said.

‘Old West’ metrics

Chroniclers of the Western U.S. have documented the transition from the “Old West” of ranching, mining and logging to the “New West,” which is dominated by tourism. While the White River National Forest is dominated by the New West economic-driver of tourism, Old West activities such as logging, grazing and mineral extraction still play a key role. There are 89 grazing allotments on the forest covering 337,000 acres. Those numbers have held steady in recent years, according to Fitzwilliams.

“Meat prices are strong and have been for five or six years,” he said. That has motivated the remaining ranchers to hold onto their grazing leases, he said. Occasionally an individual rancher might suspend a lease for a year while adjusting the size of a herd, but ranchers realize the value of their leases, he said.

While grazing is holding steady, gas production fell in 2013. There were 2.2 million cubic feet of natural-gas produced from wells on the forest in 2013, according to the annual report. That’s down from 4.6 mcf in 2010, the last time an annual report for the forest was completed.

The total value of the gas produced on the forest fell to $9.1 million in 2013 from $19.3 million three years prior.

The Forest Service was overseeing 81 oil and gas sites in the White River National Forest in 2010. That slipped to 72 last year.

“It’s slow, and there’s not many new wells going in,” Fitzwilliams said.

Low gas prices significantly slowed drilling in western Colorado. Fitzwilliams said that as he understands it, prices are expected to remain low for the foreseeable future because of the high supply in the country.

Timber sales soar

The amount of timber sold from the White River National Forest in 2013 was the highest in five years, according to the supervisor’s office. The agency sold 61,622 hundred cubic feet, or ccf, last year. That dwarfed the 40,371 ccf sold in 2012 but was well behind the 85,297 ccf of 2008.

One ccf equals a cord of wood. Two ccf equals 1,000 board feet, so the amount harvested from the forest was nearly 31 million board feet. A typical 2,400-square-foot house requires about 16,000 board feet of framing lumber and 14,000 square feet of other wood products, according to a timber industry website.

Fitzwilliams said 61,000 ccf is much greater than the annual average for timber sold from the White River, which he pegged at about 45,000 ccf.

Timber sale volume soared in 2013 because the Forest Service completed several environmental reviews of projects in previous years and had projects ready to go.

In addition to the timber sold, the White River sold 53,342 tons of biomass, and it signed a long-term contract to provide biomass for a facility in Gypsum. The plant produces electricity by burning beetle-kill trees collected from the forest.

The White River signed a 10-year contract with Western Range Reclamation that requires vegetation management of 1,000 acres per year. The contractor will be able to use trees removed for fuels reduction and aspen treatment as well as beetle-kill and cleanup of slash piles to provide biomass for the Gypsum plant.

Tourism keeps climbing

The Forest Service reported that there were an estimated 12.3 million visitors for recreation uses on the White River National Forest in 2013. That was up from an estimated 9.2 million in the 2010 Annual Report.

The White River is the most highly visited forest in the country for recreation, Fitzwilliams said.

The bulk of the visits come from 12 ski resorts that use 45,500 acres of forest lands in their operations. However, the White River has 751,900 acres of Wilderness in eight Wilderness Areas and 640,000 acres of officially designated roadless lands that draw summer day hikers and backpackers.

There are 2,500 miles of trails and over 1,900 miles of roads. The various ranger districts maintain 66 campgrounds.

The Forest Service has issued 155 permits to outfitters and guides that do everything from lead hunters into the heart of the backcountry to hauling bicyclists up to Maroon Lake for a descent down Maroon Creek Valley.

The agency had a $23 million budget in 2013 compared to $28.57 million in 2010, when more funds were allocated by the agency for the White River to deal with trees killed during the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

Fitzwilliams said the federal government pays about $10 per acre for management of the White River National Forest, which he labeled “a really good bargain” for taxpayers.

The full 2013 Annual Report can be found at www.fs.usda.gov/detail/whiteriver/home/?cid=STELPRDB5304063.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jul 13, 2014 08:08PM Published Jul 15, 2014 08:44AM Copyright 2014 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.