Basalt Mtn. tree-cutting on schedule | AspenTimes.com
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Basalt Mtn. tree-cutting on schedule

The Colorado Division of Wildlife will proceed with a plan to clear nearly all trees from a section of lower Basalt Mountain next winter despite widespread opposition.

The wildlife division and the Colorado State Forest Service are combining on a project to clear pinon and juniper trees from nearly 100 acres adjacent to the Aspen Junction subdivision. The site is within the 5,000-acre Basalt State Wildlife Area.

The state forest service is contributing funds to reduce the wildfire risk next to the heavily populated area. The wildlife division wants the trees removed to encourage the growth of grasses that will benefit deer.

The project will remove all but about five trees per acre. Standing dead trees will also remain. Once the trees are removed, natural grasses and other vegetation will start to grow because they aren’t competing for water, according to Bill Clark, a biologist with the wildlife division. Clearing the trees will also let sunlight in to germinate the seeds of the grasses.

The wildlife division is undertaking a number of projects to make the Basalt refuge a healthier habitat, according to Pat Tucker, area wildlife manager. One goal of the agency is to help deer herds recover. Their numbers are down about one-half from what they were a decade or so ago, he said. Their reproductivity continues to be low.

“When you ask why don’t we have the number of deer that we used to, you can’t put your finger on any one issue,” Tucker said.

But the project has struck a nerve with many midvalley residents. Initially it was just neighbors in the Aspen Junction subdivision who voiced concerns. They contended that the project would create a visual blight in their back yard and wipe out scenery they enjoy.

Tucker said no contractor who bid on the project was willing to try to do a commercial harvest of the trees for lumber or firewood. Instead, the selected contractor will use a machine called a hydroax – essentially a large mower for trees. The wood will be ground into chips that will cover the forest floor.

Clark said the targeted area won’t look as bad as a clear-cut logging project would. The trees won’t be skidded out, which tears up the ground.

While opposition from the neighbors could be expected, the response at an open house held last Tuesday evening by the wildlife division proved it’s more than just NIMBYism, or a Not In My Back Yard outcry, at work.

During one stretch of the informal, two-hour open house, five residents of old town Basalt, far removed from the project site, questioned the need for the project.

Beth Machado said she regularly hikes the hills around Basalt and sees a high number of deer there. She said she doesn’t think the project is necessary.

She said she also believes the site will be visible from throughout the valley and it won’t be pretty.

John Collins, who lives in the hills overlooking Basalt but far from the wildlife division project, said he doesn’t support clearcuts as a way to reduce the threat of wildfires. He said the environmental and aesthetic damage isn’t worth the benefits.

Collins noted that numerous people object to the clearcut. “What you’re doing is threatening to the community,” he said.

But state agency officials were equally as insistent about the need for the project. Tucker stressed that the open house was intended to share information about the need for the project, not spark a debate.

“It’s not intended to be antagonistic. It’s not intended to be confrontational,” he said.

Gerry Terwilliger, also a resident of old town Basalt, said he came to the open house to learn more about the need for the project. “Five trees per acre seemed awfully thin to me,” he said.

Trees currently crowd most of the 100 acres. Some estimates have placed it above 200 per acre.

Terwilliger said after the meeting that he wasn’t able to stay there very long but he was “being swayed” by the reasoning for the project. He noted that the wildlife division is in a tough position because it is charged with a sole responsibility – managing its property for the benefit of wildlife.

Terwilliger said the state agencies should probably work harder to find a way to do a project that accomplishes their goals without alienating the public.

As it stands, the wildlife division and state forest service plan to proceed with the project this coming winter. Plans to proceed faster were delayed due to the threat of beetles being attracted to the freshly cut forest. The threat will be gone if it is undertaken during the winter.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]


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