Foresters to set fire to Colorado aspens
September 5, 2009
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – The aspen tree beckons us this time of year.
As the nights grow longer, the days shorter and the air becomes a bit crisper, aspens ignite the hills with their annual display of color. But this year it will be the aspens themselves that will be ignited.
This fall, the U.S. Forest Service plans to take the unusual step of burning 500 acres of aspen, north of Collbran in a roadless area known as the Battlements. Fire will be used to try to jump-start new growth in the aspen groves.
It will be the first controlled burn of aspen in Grand Mesa National Forest, said Connie Clementson, U.S. Forest Service district ranger for the Grand Mesa National Forest.
This aspen affliction should not be confused with the aspen decline that has been seen across the country for the past decade.
“We are calling it sudden aspen decline,” Clementson said.
Recommended Stories For You
In 2008, the Forest Service estimated, based on aerial surveys, 17 percent of the state’s aspen were affected. That number encompasses 553,000 acres of groves that animals depend on for survival and humans turn to for enjoyment.
“Aspen is a critical ecosystem in the mountains of Colorado,” said Randy Hampton, a Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman. “Elk are probably the one species that are most visible and visibly dependent on the aspen community. That is where you will see, as aspen stands die off, you certainly have the potential for a decline in elk reproduction in those areas.”
Visitors to Colorado also enjoy seeing the trees in all their seasons. On Grand Mesa, the height of the aspens’ beauty is bookended by two September Sundays, known as Color Sundays, Sept. 20 and 27, said Jennifer Grossheim Harris, marketing and public relations manager for the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau.
“Scenic beauty in general is a huge lure for people coming to our area,” she said.
The aspens complement the many other attractions in and surrounding the Grand Valley, such as Colorado National Monument, the many fruit orchards and Grand Mesa.
One of the best places to view aspens locally is by taking a drive up Grand Mesa on Colorado Highway 65, which goes over the mesa toward Delta County.
Seeing the aspen groves awash in a mix of gold, red and orange from a car seat is “part of the fall tourism package,” said Jim Durr, chairman of the Delta County Tourism Cabinet and a member of the Colorado Tourism Office Board.
“It has to do with fall harvest, the experience on farms and orchards and vineyards. So between the fruits and the vegetables and wine in the middle of our harvest season, it makes an important connection between them … It is just an important component.”
The Forest Service is harvesting aspens where it can, but in areas where there are no roads – such as the Battlement area north of Collbran – a fire is being prescribed. The area targeted for burning is limited to 500 acres because air-quality-control permits restrict how much smoke can be put into the air, said Carol McKenzie, a silviculturist for the Forest Service’s Grand Valley and Paonia districts.
The Forest Service judges a burn of aspen successful if the trees begin sprouting from their roots within one to two years of the burn, she said.
And it is not just a few sprouts forest managers are looking for. They want thousands of fresh young shoots to emerge after the controlled burn “to be termed successful,” McKenzie said.
The burn is expected to occur in September or October, she said.
“Fire is a good tool to use. It is just a bit unusual to put fire into aspen,” Clementson said.
Aspen is a hearty, fire-resistant tree that burns at higher temperatures than most, Clementson said.
The Forest Service is scheduling the burning this fall because that is when the aspen is most susceptible to fire.
Successful or not with this fall’s burn, the Forest Service has no plans to begin a scorched-earth policy to blacken Grand Mesa.
Where sudden aspen decline is most visible on the mesa, in the Powderhorn area, the Forest Service has been cutting dying aspen and clearing other trees that crown over them, blocking sunlight, in an effort to help the remaining aspen survive and spur new growth.
To the naked eye, the tops of the trees appear to be dying, but the problem runs deeper. The roots of aspen trees, from which clones sprout – the main way aspens spread – are being affected, much to the dismay of the Forest Service.
“That’s what is unusual,” McKenzie said.