Fire on Pitkin County open space? |

Fire on Pitkin County open space?

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – A plan to cut or burn vegetation on about 50,000 acres of federal land around the Roaring Fork Valley, in order to improve wildlife habitat, could extend onto Pitkin County open space parcels, as well.

The county, at least, has asked to be kept in the loop as Forest Service planning moves forward.

The agency’s proposed use of prescribed burns and mechanical clearing of trees and shrubs in order to improve forage for deer, elk and bighorn sheep dovetails with existing management plans for some county open space parcels, but the county isn’t likely to undertake such projects on its own, according to Gary Tennenbaum, land steward for the county’s Open Space and Trails program.

For one thing, most county open space parcels aren’t large enough to warrant such efforts. Without a broader approach to habitat improvement, the county would be creating a pocket of enticing habitat that could be overrun by big game.

“We’d be creating an ice cream parlor,” Tennenbaum said. “Our biggest issue is scale.”

The Forest Service proposal, however, outlines projects involving hundreds of acres to thousands of acres apiece.

“To really make a difference, you have to do it on that scale – at least 200 or 300 acres,” Tennenbaum said.

About half of the 50,000 acres targeted by the Forest Service are in Pitkin County. Overall, the plan calls for prescribed fire on about 26,200 acres to consume decadent vegetation and spur new growth. A mix of fire and mechanical treatment – mowing, mulching and chain sawing shrubs and trees – is proposed on about 19,400 acres, and the cutting of groups of trees to create openings in the forest canopy is proposed on about 4,300 acres.

A combination of fire and mechanized treatment proposed on the national forest above Filoha Meadows is an ideal project for county participation, according to Tennenbaum.

The Forest Service wants to clear stands of pinyon-juniper that are taking over the hillsides above the meadows and create openings for grasses and flowering plants, improving habitat for bighorn sheep. It is proposing treatment on 748 acres.

The meadows themselves – open land along the Crystal River north of Redstone that has been purchased as county open space – have seen encroachment by shrubs that would eventually crowd out areas where sheep and other animals forage for grasses, particularly in the wintertime.

“Without any disturbance, the Gambel oak has definitely expanded and the juniper has expanded into the meadow,” Tennenbaum said.

Red Wind Point, an area north of Filoha where the Forest Service is contemplating fire on 416 acres to improve bighorn sheep habitat, is another area of interest to the county, which owns 65 adjoining acres.

County open space on Avalanche Creek and Potato Bill Creek, both in the Crystal River drainage; and Sunnyside, Collins Creek and Arbaney Mesa in the Woody Creek area could also be incorporated into Forest Service projects, noted a letter from the county to the federal agency.

The Forest Service is seeking an intra-agency grant to fund the habitat projects, some of which could begin later this year if the money is awarded. The hoped-for grant would fund five years of a 10-year program.

If the plan receives funding, the Forest Service is open to expanding its work beyond national forest borders, according to Scott Snelson, Aspen-Sopris District ranger.

“We’re kind of trying to take an all-lands approach to this,” he said. “If there was that potential, we’d been interested in improving the habitat on anybody’s lands really.”

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