Forest plan may lead to larger fires | AspenTimes.com

Forest plan may lead to larger fires

Scott CondonAspen Times Staff Writer

The White River National Forest could face larger and longer-lasting fires due to a management philosophy adopted earlier this month, the U.S. Forest Service acknowledges.The new management plan, known as Alternative K, will not reduce the risk of large-scale wildfires as effectively as some other options that were rejected, according to a final environmental impact statement released with the new plan.”Alternatives that limit the amount of resource production such as C, E, I, and K may possibly lead to a trend in larger and longer-duration fires and will most certainly lead to an increase in stand-replacing crown fires within the next quarter century,” the EIS says.”This is primarily due to the current age of the stands and the large tracts of continuous even-aged forests with little or no canopy openings,” the analysis continues.The new forest plan was adopted June 4 – before the Coal Seam fire devastated parts of West Glenwood Springs and prior to the outbreak of several major wildfires in Colorado’s national forests. The plan, which goes into effect next month, will guide numerous management practices in the 2.3 million-acre White River forest for the next 10 to 15 years.Forest Service officials said there is no indication the fires will spark a reconsideration of the White River’s new policy. Aging forest poses problemsEach of the seven management alternatives considered by the Forest Service proposed different amounts and types of timber harvesting. Two of the alternatives, including one that the Forest Service initially preferred, would have harvested in a way that made the forest less susceptible to major wildfires than the option selected, according to the final EIS.The study says an advantage of the new forest management plan is it won’t add significantly to the fuel buildup due to harvesting. Logging often leaves behind branches and wood debris known as slash.In addition, the new management plan will employ “less-aggressive fire suppression options” and make greater use of controlled burns. That will make fire fighting safer and more cost-effective, the study says.On the other hand, the management plan’s failure to diversify the forest age and spread the canopy could increase the size and intensity of fires that do occur. Fires under those conditions are harder to put out with “initial attacks” and require extended fire-fighting efforts, the EIS explains.”In addition, as timber stands age and become more decadent, the threat of stand-replacing fires of significant size will become more likely,” the EIS says. “These types of fires will create more risk to firefighters, the public and adjoining high-value resources.”Part of national debateFirefighting efforts have been under intense scrutiny throughout the 1990s and into this century due to the devastation of Yellowstone National Park, the death of 14 firefighters in the Storm King fire outside Glenwood Springs in 1996, and the prescribed fire that got out of hand and charred part of Los Alamos, N.M.In Colorado, the interest in preventing fires and fighting them effectively is greater than ever after a turbulent start to the summer. Four major wildfires have burned unprecedented amounts of public land and numerous structures.The Hayman fire southwest of Denver is the state’s largest at about 137,000 acres. The Coal Seam fire destroyed 29 homes in and around West Glenwood.The new management plan’s EIS expects a growing population around the White River National Forest, and greater public use of it will affect fire management. Development on the fringes and on inholdings of private property within the forest will create greater pressure to snuff flames.Plan provides toolsFrankie Romero, a Forest Service fire management officer for the area that includes the Roaring Fork Valley, said he believes Alternative K gives the agency the tools it needs to effectively deal with fire risks.It uses prescribed burns and harvests to effectively manage fuels, he said, and the strategy of dealing with fires once they start is well-planned.The new plan assigns a management designation to each section of the forest. Each of the 32 designations is assigned a value that dictates whether or not the Forest Service should pursue aggressive fire suppression if flames break out.Areas known as “intermix,” where homes are developed on the forest’s fringe, will be aggressively defended and fuels managed.The problem is, other forests in Colorado and elsewhere have a greater amount of development on their borders. The Pike-San Isabel National Forest, where the Hayman fire broke out, has a significantly greater population surrounding it.The National Fire Plan, a federally funded effort to prevent wildfires, has limited dollars available to harvest or otherwise treat fuels in those intermix areas.”We’ve got our work cut out for us competing for those dollars,” Romero said.Karl Mendonca, a timber management assistant in the White River, said he believes the new forest management plan deals more effectively with reducing the risk of wildfires than portrayed in the final EIS.The plan regards 37 percent of the forest acreage as “tentatively suitable” for timber harvesting. It would produce an annual harvest of 12.4 million board feet of timber – more than four of the six other alternatives considered.Mendonca said the plan will help diversify the age and spread the canopy.Romero said the new forest plan also recognizes that wildland fires can be an effective tool in revitalizing the forest, when it can be allowed to burn safely.[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.]