Feds outline habitat plan to Pitkin County | AspenTimes.com

Feds outline habitat plan to Pitkin County

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Aspen Times file
ALL | The Aspen Times

ASPEN – A U.S. Forest Service plan to cut or burn vegetation on about 50,000 acres, about half of which is in Pitkin County, appeared to earn the support of county commissioners Tuesday.

A roomful of Forest Service and Colorado Division of Wildlife officials met with commissioners to discuss both the proposed habitat restoration work and a couple of tree-cutting projects that target the mountain pine beetle.

Commissioners wanted to know how all the projects tie together for the greater good of the White River National Forest and ultimately suggested they would formally support the habitat work, for which the Forest Service plans to compete for a grant within the agency.

County support will give a boost to the application, said Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, but the habitat work may prove controversial, or at least eye-opening, within the community, he warned.

“No one’s against improving wildlife habitat,” he said. “That will be different when we drop that first match.”

Lighting fires is risky, he conceded, and the county has asked the agency to conduct extensive community outreach and education before igniting a controlled burn, and to be especially cautious when burning near developed areas and where there is only one access road in and out. Specifically noted was the road into Lenado, located east of Woody Creek. A prescribed burn is proposed in the Collins Creek area of that valley, where almost 10,000 acres will be treated.

The projects, including the mechanized cutting of vegetation, the use of fire, or both, are scattered throughout the forest in five general areas: Woody Creek, Basalt, the Fryingpan and Crystal River valleys, and Glenwood Springs.

“I know the scale sometimes scares people,” Fitzwilliams said. “For the average person, 50,000 acres sounds like a big gulp. I don’t think we have a choice.”

The Forest Service doesn’t have the resources to “dink around” with individual environmental reviews for small projects here and there, he said.

With the valley floor mostly developed, habitat restoration on the hillsides is critical, he said. Without regular fires, the vegetation has degraded and provides poor forage.

Big game populations will continue to decline without the work, predicted the DOW’s Perry Will, area wildlife manager.

“We’re going to be out of these critters if we don’t do something,” he said.

“Our winter range conditions are really pathetic,” agreed Kevin Wright, area wildlife officer for the DOW.

“This is unprecedented,” Wright said of the Forest Service plan, devised in cooperation with the DOW. “The Forest Service has never been this proactive on this scale. My hat’s off to them.”

Commissioners did not voice objection with either the plan or the Forest Service’s goals, but asked how a couple of privately funded tree-cutting projects, aimed at the beetle infestation, fit in with the agency’s overall vision. One of the projects will take place adjacent to the Starwood subdivision, and the other will be done by the Aspen Skiing Co. on the four local ski areas.

The beetle projects have raised questions among commissioners about whether private dollars drive Forest Service priorities.

“If people who are willing to pay for law enforcement got better law enforcement, what kind of government would we be?” said Commissioner Michael Owsley.

The Forest Service won’t pursue any project that doesn’t benefit the greater public good, Fitzwilliams assured commissioners.

“I don’t care whose back yard it is or who’s going to pay for it,” he said. “If I thought these projects were just for an individual, I’m not interested.”

All of the projects will improve vegetation and forest health in some way, Fitzwilliams said.

“We’ve got to make our forest more resilient, if you will,” he said.

The application deadline for the Forest Service grant is Feb. 18, and Fitzwilliams said he expects a lot of competition among districts nationwide for funding. If the White River receives a grant, it will cover five years of habitat restoration. The overall plan stretches out over a decade, though some of the prescribed burns could occur in the fall of 2011 or the following spring. Some mechanical treatments that don’t involve fire would start next summer.


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