Magnolia residents take on USFS

two monsters

Barbara Lawlor, Boulder County

The tree felling on Magnolia Road began about a month ago. Previously a tunnel through cramped and diseased lodgepole pine trees, the dirt road was opened up on both sides by massive heavy logging equipment. Views which had been blocked by the pine walls were revealed: James Peak, the Sleeping Giant, meadows.

When the West Magnolia mitigation took place the year before last, bikers, hikers, and horseback riders were dismayed at what they called the devastation of their recreation area. They complained to the Boulder District Ranger’s office, but the patch cutting—more like clear cutting—went on until the project was finished. It culminated in the removal of the logs and the burning of the slash.

The forest service and their contractor are now slowly moving east on Magnolia Road, widening the open space on each side of the road, taking out large loads of lodgepole logs. Some of the residents are fine with it, enjoying the views they never had before, and also enjoying a sense of relief, knowing that if a major wild land fire swept through the area, the clear cut swaths could offer a line of defense.

Other residents are angry. They say they understand the need for fire mitigation, but they don’t agree with the way it is being done. After a month of discussing the project on the Magnolia Road collective Internet, a group of residents asked the forest service to meet with them and listen to their concerns.

susan and silvia

On Friday at 12:30, the residents met at the West Magnolia trailhead. Boulder District Ranger Silvia Clark and Forester Kevin Zimlinghaus showed up to answer questions. Nederland Assistant Fire Chief Ryan Roberts and Nederland trustee Randy Lee represented the fire department and the town.

Roberts said that in an area that has historically burned a lot, the fire department’s biggest asset is the people, the residents that live in the area. He stressed the need for more available volunteers. He said that in the Black Forest fire, 90 percent of the homes that were lost were in older, unmitigated forest.

“When I look at this project, I get psyched. Without this break, there is no way we could fight the fire. This helps us. It gives us something we can defend. If you think patch cuts are ugly, look at what is left of the Black Tiger fire area in Boulder Canyon. It looks like someone dropped bleach all over it. Fourmile will take decades to come back.”

Roberts said that the NFPD came up with a Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 2011 and the number one priority is the defense of Big Springs. Number eight was West Magnolia Road. The work the USFS is doing fits in with the CWPP. The spaces being opened up will also allow for retardant to reach the fire on the ground.

Trustee Lee said the Nederland Town Board takes a broad view, looks beyond the town borders and public safety is a priority. “We are trying to get emergency egress out of Big Springs. We asked the forest service to include 40 acres of mitigation in the Big Springs area. We know everyone will be upset, but we are ecstatic.”

He explained that this summer there is a grant to work on seven parcels of land in town, including the water treatment plant. The Nederland Sort Yard is now open to drop off slash and duff from mitigation projects.

When asked about what will happen with the huge piles of slash that have amassed on Magnolia Road, Forester Zimlinghaus explained that 288 acres of West Magnolia have been mitigated, the slash piles burned, and the forest replanted. He said they would be going back in and taking out the lodgepole saplings that sprout up and leave the Ponderosa and Douglas fir. The East Magnolia area would be treated the same way.

The group walked, under umbrellas because of the afternoon downpour, to the top of the mitigation site next to Susan Wagner and Steve Durkee’s property, where Zimlinghaus continued his explanation of the project, saying the area was known as the Lumpy Tung and has been part of the USFS mitigation planning for years. He said the larger openings in the forest will alter fire behavior when it passes through and the cuts are based on the topography of the section.

Magnolia Road resident Paul McCarthy questioned Zimlinghaus’s logic saying, “If what you are describing is what happened on West Magnolia Road it is not acceptable. You are claiming to eliminate forest fire by eliminating the fire.”

District Ranger Silvia Clark explained that if a forest is in the trees and the trees are close enough for the tops to touch, there is a possibility of a running crown fire, which is almost impossible to stop. If the fire is stopped by an opening, it will move on the ground giving hand crews a chance to contain it.

FIRST vivian and kevins

Long-time Magnolia resident Vivian Long told the ranger that huge slash piles left from mitigation efforts 12 years previous were still standing in the forest near her house. Clark admitted the forest service had dropped the ball on that issue and promised that they were getting a contractor to haul it off.

Magnolia Road homeowner Susan Wagner said when she saw what was happening to the forest that borders her property on the top of Magnolia Road, she was distraught. “These big beautiful trees were being cut like garbage.”

Zimlinghaus answered her, “We are looking at the big picture. A half dozen trees don’t mean much to us. When we left single trees in a cut, they blew down.”

The group walked to an area where 13-year-old light green Ponderosa pines grew up in dense patches, the aftermath of cutting. Zimlinghaus said that a crew would come in and weed whack the young trees. When asked why healthy trees were taken out and dying or dead spindly trees were left standing alone in the cut, he said that patch cutting required that a handful of habitat trees remain.

After the gathering dispersed, the Magnolia residents were more disgruntled than before. They decided that they needed to band together and find out where the community stands on the issue. Vivian Long says, “This is not to say that all mitigation is bad, but that the current operations are not well planned, will, in all likelihood, be ineffective, and, judging by prior forest service operations, unlikely to be finished. Hazard zone mitigation around houses has proven to help, especially if surface fuels are treated. Reducing and removing surface and ladder fuels are key in reducing fire risk. Perhaps the forest service should deal with the slash left from the last round of cutting.”

Long said if it actually mitigated the risk of fire, it might be worth it, but there was no evidence for that presumption. There will always be risk unless you remove the forest.

Magnolia resident Paul McCarthy contacted USFS Outreach Forester Ryan Ludlow and said, “Many of us have discovered that the proposed mitigation plan is terribly flawed. We want the work stopped until further study can be done, including the completion of work initiated 15 years ago.”

Opponents to the cutting have done extensive research on mitigation work and its effectiveness. They say the forest service is not providing a logically coherent argument for their actions and admit that the USFS itself doesn’t know if their plan will be effective and doesn’t know if they will have the budget to make it more effective.

When asked who was making money on the cuts, who was profiting, Zimlinghaus said that the cash for the logs was negligible. He said the two truckloads of logs a day are sent to Fort Lupton to be put on a train and shipped to Washington and some are transported to be used for fertilizer and that the wood is worth “pennies.”

The group of protestors is looking at asking the Boulder County Commissioners to put a stop to the cutting until more research can be done, or to go to the Feds and demand a change in the mitigation plan.

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.