Unprecedented forest management eyed in the valley | AspenTimes.com

Unprecedented forest management eyed in the valley

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The U.S. Forest Service wants to burn and mulch the forest surrounding the Roaring Fork basin at an unprecedented level over the next five years to restore wildlife habitat described by officials as being in “horrible” condition.

The White River National Forest supervisor’s office in Glenwood Springs is considering prescribed burns, mechanical treatment with heavy machinery or a combination of the two on about 57,000 acres. The project sites range from a portion of Red Mountain north of Aspen, to the Nast area in the Fryingpan Valley, the canyons east of Glenwood Springs and the Assignation Ridge area on the west side of Highway 133 between Redstone and Carbondale.

A specific list of projects hasn’t been released yet, but the Forest Service intends to make it available shortly. All of the projects are designed to enhance wildlife habitat rather than deal directly with trees killed by beetles, although that may be an extra benefit in some cases, said Phil Nyland, wildlife biologist on the forest.

White River Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, who took the top post in the 2.3 million-acre forest last fall, said he was surprised to learn about the condition of wildlife habitat around the Roaring Fork Valley.

“The winter and transitional range is in very poor condition, in a general sense,” he said. “I would describe it as horrible.”

Forest Service officials hope to gain the support of Roaring Fork Valley residents for the projects. But Fitzwilliams acknowledged it could be a tough sell with some residents because it involves putting up with smoke from prescribed burns and temporarily charred or razed hillsides.

“This is definitely breaking new ground” in the Roaring Fork Valley, he said.

The Forest Service is undertaking a special effort to educate the public about the projects and to gauge support. Nyland said open houses will be held over the next six to eight weeks. He will also meet with neighborhood caucuses, and information will be shared through various media. The projects will go through the process required under the National Environmental Policy Act, which means an environmental assessment with a public comment opportunity.

Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service must show residents that sitting by and “letting nature run its course” isn’t a legitimate option. Decades of fire suppression has already blocked nature from taking its course.

“In this valley, vegetation treatment has been non-existent for the last 25 years,” Fitzwilliams said. “It’s vitally important to this valley that we do something.

“I don’t think the average person walking along the Roaring Fork Valley understands the need.”

The projects will enhance conditions on south-facing slopes that deer and elk depend on to survive winters, Nyland said. Transitional zones, areas the big game depend on as the snow melts, will also be targeted. Summer range is more plentiful, and there is more of it in good shape.

Projects will also improve habitat for bighorn sheep herds in the Fryingpan, Crystal and Colorado River drainages, according to Nyland. And habitat improved for big game benefits all game.

The analysis area covers 90,000 acres, but “treatment” of vegetation would actually cover 57,000 acres or less, Nyland said. Agency officials want to start next spring. Projects would likely continue for five years.

Prescribed burns would be used in the spring, when snow in higher elevations and wet conditions can help keep fires under control. Prescribed burns are being eyed for 70 percent of the targeted terrain, or roughly 40,000 acres, Nyland said. Mechanical treatment with chainsaws or machines that essentially mulch shrubs and small trees would be used – along with small burns – in 30 percent of the project area.

Scott Snelson, who became the Aspen-Sopris District Ranger six weeks ago, said the habitat rehabilitation needs to be undertaken over a broad range of terrain rather than in isolated areas. When only small pockets of habitat are restored, it helps individual animals but not herds.

“We’ve got a big part of our landscape that’s not functioning for what people care about – hunting, fishing, birding,” he said.

The Forest Service worked with the Colorado Division of Wildlife to identify “the areas where we’re hurting the most,” Nyland said. In some areas pinon and juniper will be removed to stop their spread into neighboring vegetation areas. That allows sage and other vegetation important in big-game diets to proliferate.

Some aspen tree stands will also be removed, particularly where bushes will flourish and provide forage. Fitzwilliams said improving the age diversity of aspen stands by encouraging new growth will help ease the threat of Sudden Aspen Decline (SAD), which is affecting much of the state. Some grassland and conifer stands will also be targeted in the project.

Snelson said one of the biggest topics of debate could be work proposed in designated roadless areas. About 20 percent of the forest management projects are in roadless lands, according to a Forest Service estimate. Chainsaws and machinery to mulch the terrain would be used but no roads would be constructed, Nyland said.

The Roaring Fork Valley project comes at a time when the Forest Service is also pondering how to deal with hundreds of thousands of acres of rust-colored lodgepole pines killed by bark beetles. Western Colorado areas like Eagle, Summit and Grand counties have been hit hard by beetle kill. Pitkin County fared better because of the diversity of trees.

Nevertheless, the valley’s forests are facing their own major challenges, Fitzwilliams said.