Basalt firefighters finalize position on Basalt Mountain | AspenTimes.com

Basalt firefighters finalize position on Basalt Mountain

BASALT – The Basalt fire department wants the amount of land on Basalt Mountain in the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal reduced by 54 percent, or about 7,900 acres, officials said Thursday.

They also want about 1,071 acres of Red Table Mountain removed from the Wilderness plan, mostly in developed areas near Ruedi Reservoir. That’s about 2 percent of the total lands that environmentalists want protected as Wilderness on the sprawling Red Table Mountain.

“That’s our final position,” said Bob Guion, president of the Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District board of directors. “We don’t negotiate on public safety.”

Staff and board of directors members with Wilderness Workshop received the fire department’s position statement this week, but said they haven’t had time to react. Wilderness Workshop is a nonprofit organization heading the Hidden Gems effort.

The Hidden Gems proposal would add 244,000 acres of Wilderness in Eagle and Summit counties, including lands on Basalt Mountain. The group is also working on a proposal for Pitkin and Gunnison counties. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, whose district includes Eagle and Summit counties, is assessing if he wants to introduce a Wilderness bill.

The Hidden Gems website says 12,570 acres are proposed for Wilderness on Basalt Mountain. The Basalt fire department’s analysis figures 14,745 acres are eyed on Basalt Mountain. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy. Guion said the two sides might be looking at different boundary lines.

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Basalt Mountain has been a major point of contention. The fire department announced in April it will fight Wilderness on Basalt Mountain because of concerns that the designation would make it more difficult to reduce dead trees and other fuels, and fight fires. Wilderness generally prohibits mechanized and motorized uses.

Environmentalists countered that the rules could be written to allow firefighting and possible fuels reduction. Some critics claimed the firefighters’ real agenda was to preserve recreational use of the forest.

The fire district hired a fire expert to analyze the forest health on Basalt Mountain and produce models of possible wildfire behavior. The Basalt Hazard Assessment by Rocky Mountain Ecological Services was completed this week and is available to the public for review. It can be found online at http://www.basaltfire.org/hg/maps/ and by clicking on the link for “reports.”

“We think the report underscores what we believed anecdotally,” said Guion.

The 55-page report concludes that parts of the mountain are highly susceptible to a high-intensity wildfire in most years. There has been a high buildup of dead trees because of years of fire suppression and declining forest health.

In general terms, the report says Wilderness designation could make it tougher to reduce fuels and it could complicate fire suppression. Fighting a major fire would be difficult regardless of Wilderness because of the rugged terrain and lack of roads, the report says. Aerial support would be needed to fight a fire.

“Delays in aerial support – regardless of Wilderness designation – would result in larger, costlier and more involved suppression strategies,” the report says. “Under Wilderness designation, it is more likely that delays in aerial support will occur.

“Based on current fire management policies in Wilderness areas, and unclear guidance on fire suppression strategies there could be very serious consequences in this area,” the report continues.

Wilderness designation also creates the possibility that the U.S. Forest Service could allow fires to burn as a management tool, only to have them spread into the “wildland-urban interface” area, where so much development has occurred in recent years. Fires might be allowed to grow larger because of “confusing regulatory guidance,” a delayed initial response by ground or air and a limit on use of slurry as a retardant, the report says.

The authors conclude that failing to reduce fuels and restore forest health could pose a greater threat to wildlife habitat and watersheds on Basalt Mountain than failing to add lands to Wilderness.

The fire district paid about $20,000 for the study. Fire Chief Scott Thompson said it’s not merely a tool to fight the Hidden Gems, as some critics have claimed. The report will be the basis of a Basalt-area wildfire management plan, which could be used to create a midvalley building code for fire mitigation. The plan could also be a tool to seek federal grants for fuel reduction.

Thompson said his hope is that the fire department, Basalt town government, Hidden Gems proponents and property owners rally behind reducing the risk of a catastrophic wildfire starting in the forest of Basalt Mountain and spreading to developed areas.

“I’m afraid if we designate it Wilderness we’re not going to do anything,” Thompson said.

“It’s all about mitigation,” Guion said.

A map of the parts of Basalt Mountain the fire department wants yanked from the Hidden Gems plan shows the biggest concentration of land on the western half of the long, flat-topped peak.

Guion said Gems proponents have stressed they have made numerous compromises to their proposal, including removing substantial amounts of lands to appease mountain bikers.

“If you give 100,000 acres to mountain bikes, you can give 7,000 to 8,000 acres to firefighters to protect our town,” Guion said.

Guion and Thompson said they could support a different designation that provides protections that Wilderness Workshop covets but allows the reduction of dead trees and fuels for a wildfire.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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