Forest Service defends Starwood tree project
ASPEN – A plan to remove 3,000 dead or dying trees from an exclusive subdivision near Aspen is not a case of the Forest Service favoring the wealthy, Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson assured Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday.
The Starwood project is a legitimate one that moved to the top of the list because private funds arranged by homeowners and the National Forest Foundation are available, but it didn’t “leapfrog” a lot of other opportunities, Snelson said.
“At this point, it’s a choice between doing a little and doing a little more,” he said.
Commissioners haven’t opposed the project, though the county was asked to give its input. But the proposal raised brows, nonetheless.
“Is the Forest Service policy, if an element of the community comes up with the money, they’ll jump on it?” Commissioner Jack Hatfield asked pointedly. “Can the wealthy… can they buy access. Is that what this is?”
The Forest Service is always looking to form partnerships with other entities to make projects happen, Snelson responded.
“It’s not necessarily the wealth of the thing that’s necessarily driving it,” he said.
In Colorado, federal dollars to address swaths of the forest that are infested or have been killed by mountain pine beetles are focused on areas that have suffered the greatest impact from the epidemic, Snelson said. The White River National Forest surrounding Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley hasn’t been hit as hard.
Starwood, on the shoulder of Red Mountain, northwest of Aspen, has treated lodgepole pines on private property. The proposed project, which could begin in May, addresses trees on adjacent public land.
However, Starwood is a gated community, and public access is not available through the enclave to the public land beyond it, some commissioners noted.
“You can get there in other ways,” said Gary Tennenbaum, land steward for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails.
“If there was access through Starwood, then the benefits would be more widespread, essentially,” said Commissioner Michael Owsley.
However, Owsley said he wasn’t prepared to oppose the project, if the Forest Service feels it’s beneficial.
Tackling a network of pockets where there is pine beetle infestation could have a positive effect, Snelson explained. The Starwood project is a pocket. Smuggler Mountain, where work has been done to slow the beetle spread, is another, he said.
The Forest Service is offering a second comment period on the Starwood project, with a deadline of Jan. 18, and it plans to schedule a second public meeting on the proposal in Woody Creek, in addition to the open house on Thursday from 4:30-6:30 p.m. at the El Jebel Community Center, Snelson said. Commissioners advocated the second meeting.
County officials also urged the Forest Service to analyze the effects of the Starwood tree removal, as the county and city of Aspen have done with tree cutting to slow the beetle spread on Smuggler.
“We as a county have spent a considerable amount of money on monitoring to make sure what we’re doing is working,” Tennenbaum said.
And, if an aerial application of verbenone is used at Starwood, the county has asked the Forest Service to make sure it’s in a biodegradable form. Verbenone is a natural pheromone that fools adult beetles into leaving healthy trees alone.
Commissioner Patti Clapper also questioned what the ongoing impacts of a multiyear project at Starwood will be. Most of the timber harvesting, however, is expected to occur in the first year, when about 2,200 dead trees and 200 infested trees will be removed. The trees will be hand-felled and hauled to private land by helicopter.
The Forest Service is also seeking county input on a broader project, to enhance wildlife habitat and reduce wildfire risk on 50,000 acres of the White River National Forest in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The county has scheduled a Jan. 11 meeting with the Forest Service to discuss it.
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