West Magnolia mitigation tour

Barbara Lawlor
Boulder County

The West Magnolia Road patch cuts visible from the Sundance Lodge and Cafe look like ski trails. The open spaces meander through and around stands of aspen and some close-clumped ponderosa pine. The diversity in the slope actually adds a depth to the otherwise flat look of never-ending Lodgepole pine. The diversity also adds a mitigation piece of the Community Wildfire Protection Plan puzzle.
Since June, bicyclists and hikers have bemoaned the loss of one of Boulder County’s most popular trail systems. All of the West Magnolia paths have been closed because of the U.S. Forest Service mitigation project. Because of the danger involved with the work, no one has been allowed into the area except the workers and the Forest Service staff.
On Sunday afternoon, the area was opened to a group of about 15 people who signed up for a tour of the mitigation area, people who finally got a look at the West Magnolia makeover. The tour also included previous mitigation projects, the final results.
The first stop was the site of the Winiger Ridge Ecosystem Management Pilot Project at the Front Range Trailhead, which was completed in the early 1980s. At that time the area was thinned. The Forest Service now realizes that thinning Lodgepole pines does not create enough space between the tops of the trees to significantly alter fire behavior during an extreme wildfire.
Patch cuts adjacent to the thinning area were regenerated with thousands of Lodgepole pine seedlings. At the Reynolds Ranch in Boulder County, mitigation on 50 acres of dry-mixed conifer was completed in 2010. The prescription reduced 90 percent of the Lodgepole pine and shifted the forest to a mix of Ponderosa and Aspen.  A large-scale mosaic pattern was created that will modify the fire behavior, reducing the potential for high-intensity crown fires. Work is still going on in this area.
After noting the aftermath of patch cutting, the group then was allowed through the Forest Service access gate on West Magnolia, to finally see what the area looked like after a summer of plucking Lodgepole from the hillsides. The area includes 18 units within a much-used recreation area. The pine beetle infestation was high, imposing a safety hazard to recreationists and necessitating larger and more intensive treatments to remove fuel loadings within the wildland urban interface.
The caravan of USFS and county vans and trucks moved up West Magnolia toward the major trailhead intersection and people seeing the area for the first time were silent. On both sides of the road, what once was thickly forested was now an open clear-cut area. To the left, large slash piles broke up the cleared area; here and there a dead standing pine tree was left for wildlife habitat. It was a shocking sight, a different look at the recreation, but the participants were asked to picture a meadow filled with wildflowers and small Aspen stands. It would not remain a devastated area beyond this winter.
The amazing part of the open patch cut was to the right. Instead of the dense forest a view opened up to the valley north of Nederland. One could see Caribou Ranch, the Nederland Elementary School and Long’s Peak in the distance. The view was breathtaking and accessible from the road. It is a view that people would ride horses to, would hike, bike or ski to. It was now laid open to the casual drive-by tourist.
Kevin Zimlinghaus, Silviculturist, spoke to the group, his back to the view as he explained the plan behind the action. He said that once the West Magnolia work was done, the patch cutting would move to the Kelly-Dahl area, that all Lodgepole pine would be removed.
“Over time, the piles of slash will be addressed. All of the material will be moved off site. There are still 2,500 acres of piles, logs and scatter in the district. They will either be lopped and scattered, burned or chipped.”
Will Briggs, the South Zone Fire Management officer, told the group that prescribed burning is difficult to do and that the smoke permit is restrictive. It takes two summers for the piles to attain adequate consumption percentage. The burn requires six inches of snow on the ground. The smoke permit is the hardest part of a burn plan and right now the forest service doesn’t have the money to deal with the piles.
Nederland Fire Protection District Fire Chief Rick Dirr took his turn to speak to the group. He said the Nederland CWPP has been in place for about a year and in his perspective what the Forest Service is doing is a meaningful effort, a great start, to support the plan.
“What we have is a horseshoe shape of protection from the north west, mitigation around the school and the bus barn, future mitigation around the water treatment plant and the high school. Next year we will add the East Magnolia piece and have a circle around Nederland. West Magnolia is different than what we’re used to seeing, but I am thrilled. We can fight a fire here, with the school as a command post. I know that this is a 10-year project, but we have a good jump start here.”
It’s all about the big picture, the ultimate fire break around an entire town. Chad Julian, resource specialist for Boulder County Open Space, said that the West Magnolia project was the best work he has seen in Boulder County.
“We have been planning this since 2005.”
Dirr said the Forest Service got on the project before the fire district did. Now, patch cuts in Big Springs have been completed. He added that the agencies can do the large treatments but that the property owners had to do their part. Defensible space around a house is no longer good enough. “We have to tie in the pieces to the whole picture.”
The Saws and Slaws neighborhood mitigation project jumped into the battle this summer, with entire neighborhoods cleaning up their property and having fuel material taken out. This past summer has been a launching point for the long-term goal of making Nederland’s defensible space. Piece by piece, patch cutting is connecting the mitigation puzzle.
After the session on West Magnolia, the group gathered at the Nederland Community Center to digest what they learned during the tour and learn how to educate the rest of the community to join forces in the protection battle.