Prescribed burn eyed for 2016 in Hunter Creek Valley | AspenTimes.com

Prescribed burn eyed for 2016 in Hunter Creek Valley

Staff report

A coalition of environmental groups, public-land managers and firefighters is exploring use of prescribed fire to improve wildlife habitat and decrease the risk of wildfire in the Hunter Creek Valley.

The group is looking at using fire on steep slopes on the north side of the valley in the area surrounding the lower Sunnyside Plunge Trail and the new Hummingbird Trail. No estimate was available on the acreage that will be burned.

The goal is to use prescribed fire in the valley next spring, but weather conditions and safety concerns at the time will determine if the project can proceed.

Historic buildings in the valley floor aren't in the area targeted for a burn, the coalition said in a statement. The Hunter Creek Valley is a heavily visited area for hikers, bicyclists and other national forest visitors. Recreation will be restricted at the time of the burn, but there will be no long-term impacts to use of the area, the statement said.

Recreation will be restricted at the time of the burn but there will be no long-term impacts to use of the area.

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The benefits of the project will be immense, according to the coalition.

"The increased young growth of trees and shrubs following a fire will increase the food supply for deer, elk, bears and other smaller mammals," the coalition said in the statement. "The lower-severity burn will occur primarily in gamble oak, mountain shrubland and aspen forests."

The project also will reduce the amount of fuel in the area, so if a natural fire were to occur, it would be less likely to threaten the outskirts of Aspen.

"The plan isn't to create a firebreak, but hopefully we will remove a substantial amount of fuels from the area, and this will have beneficial impacts for any future natural fires in the area," said Jim Genung, fuels and fire specialist with the White River National Forest.

The partners in the project are the U.S. Forest Service, Pitkin County, the city of Aspen, the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and Wilderness Workshop. The city and county own and manage open space on Smuggler Mountain, adjacent to the national forest.

The partners discussed using prescribed burn to improve habitat while working on the Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan in 2014. That plan is a land-management blueprint.

An earlier public review of the plan approved the use of prescribed burn and mechanical treatment on 4,681 acres on Smuggler Mountain and in the Hunter Creek Valley. The coalition will still collect comments from the community even though the project is approved.

"The group is hoping this burn will result in a greater understanding of the benefits of the prescribed fire and hopes to engage in a community conversation on the issue," the coalition's statement said.

The Forest Service will plan and oversee the burn. The Fire Department will assist with safety concerns on the day of the fire and serve as a liaison with the community on the days leading to the event.

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