Midvalley habitat work is just the beginning | AspenTimes.com

Midvalley habitat work is just the beginning

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

EMMA – A plan to improve wildlife habitat on 45,600 acres of the White River National Forest began last week with the whine of chainsaws in the hills outside of Basalt and big machinery in the Avalanche Creek Valley, south of Carbondale.

Cutting down oak brush and pinyon-juniper stands may not sound like an elk-friendly endeavor, but U.S. Forest Service officials with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District led a tour onto Light Hill Friday to show members of several conservation groups the benefits of chopping down swaths of dense underbrush in the name of habitat improvement.

Light Hill, the long ridge between Emma and Old Snowmass, southwest of Highway 82, has seen it all in the way of prescribed burns and “mechanized treatment” to remove what biologists call decadent vegetation. The work is intended to spur growth of the new, tender shoots on which elk and mule deer feed.

Last fall, a controlled burn on about 110 acres left the stark remains of oak and serviceberry, but growing up from the base of each blackened trunk is new growth. The scrub oak is actually difficult to kill with fire, according to Rusty Stark, prescribed fire fuels specialist with the local Bureau of Land Management district.

Elsewhere on Light Hill, a crew armed with chainsaws has been clearing out pinyon-juniper that is encroaching into what was previously an area dominated by grass and sage, clogging a migration corridor. Those efforts will continue.

And, on a hillside high above the highway, a bulldozer-like machine, a mechanical mulcher with a rotating chopper, has chomped through oak brush to create a mosaic pattern of newly opened areas mixed with stands of old growth. There, young oak that is barely waist-high is providing forage on Light Hill, an area of important winter habitat for elk.

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Both shrub oak and serviceberry will sprout new growth at the base of a cut trunk, according to Phil Nyland, Forest Service wildlife biologist.

“If you cut it, you’re going to get it to grow back,” Nyland said. “And then you get something that’s a lot more nutritious and palatable to elk and mule deer.”

Light Hill is BLM land, but the chainsaw crew working on 138 acres of Arbaney Mesa, visible on the opposite side of the Roaring Fork Valley from Light Hill, and the mechanized treatment taking place on roughly the same amount of acreage along Avalanche Creek Road, is just the beginning of a new effort on the White River National Forest.

A combination of prescribed burns and mechanical cutting is planned on important big game habitat throughout the valley, Nyland said, though the work will benefit nesting songbirds and numerous other species, as well. In addition, it can reduce the available fuel for an uncontrolled wildfire and create fire breaks in case fire does break out, noted Jim Genung, prescribed fire fuels specialist for the White River.

Ironically, the recent Wingo Fire, sparked by lightning, came close to helping the Forest Service with its Arbaney Mesa goal. The fire burned about 40 acres before cold weather and precipitation doused it right at the edge of the area slated for cutting with chainsaws.

“It was one of those fires that, internally, we got excited about,” said Scott Snelson, Forest Service district ranger. “We want that same excitement in our community – about letting these fires burn.”

The work on Arbaney Mesa will cost about $80,000, while the mechanized work in Avalanche Creek will cost about half of that sum. Fire is a lower-cost treatment of land on a large scale, Snelson said.

Next year’s scheduled habitat treatment includes prescribed fires on the hillside above Filoha Meadows in the Crystal River Valley and in the Avalanche Creek area, on the hillside above this year’s mechanical treatment, according to Nyland. Mechanical chomping of shrubs on the north side of Basalt Mountain is also planned.

The ability to go ahead with a fire depends on weather conditions, among many other factors, Snelson noted, but he wants the public to understand that such efforts are necessary.

“If we’re going to be successful…we need to get to the point where the community embraces it,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, we can’t talk about this enough.”

Degraded vegetation throughout the greater valley – in part due to a previous mindset geared toward suppression of natural fires – is hurting big-game populations, local wildlife officials told Pitkin County commissioners last winter, when the Forest Service outlined its habitat plans.

“We’re going to be out of these critters if we don’t do something,” said Perry Will, area wildlife manager for what is now Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

janet@aspentimes.com