More Reflections on Fire Mitigation

 

kobelco

Dear Editor,

 

I read with interest Clyde Burnett’s letter regarding the Little Kingdom Forest (LKF) project 20 years ago and Gilpin residents’ concerns with recent USFS clearcutting of healthy lodgepoles. There are parallels with the Magnolia situation, and I share his view that thinning is often preferable to clearcutting and that Colorado State Forest Service collaborative efforts with landowners are preferable to logging managed solely by the USFS.

Nederland residents also have an interest in examining the evidence, since the town has requested the USFS to treat a large parcel within the town boundaries AND the USFS has left dense stands of lodgepole, much of which is filled with dead and dying trees, all along the town border behind residents on Peakview Drive.

Fire mitigation all along Magnolia Road occurred 12-15 years ago during the Winiger Ridge Ecosystem Management project, which was one of 28 pilot projects nationwide aimed at “landowners and public land management agencies working collaboratively to reduce the potential for catastrophic insect, disease and wildfire events.” The city, county, state and USFS were all involved.

Current USFS cutting operations along Magnolia appear to ignore completely mitigation done during that project. For example, patchcuts made during Winiger are now full of  dense stands of same-age lodgepole. Rather than re-clear and expand those patchcuts, the USFS is clearcutting healthy stands of lodgepole that were thinned during Winiger and earlier, as well as healthy old-growth trees of all species (the only exception for clearcuts: Ponderosas of 12” diameter at breast height), even where there is no danger of a canopy fire.  No tree smaller than 5.6” in diameter will be cut.

An aspen grove of several acres with surrounding old-growth conifers was studied by the USFS top aspen expert during Winiger, and cutting around the grove was modified to retain old-growth conifers. Nonetheless, the USFS ignored those findings and took down all surrounding conifers last week.

Not only is the Winiger project with its results/lessons being ignored, but implementation on the ground often differs from official statements by the Forest Service. For example, in a March 6th Mountain-Ear article written by USFS  employee Maribeth Pecotte, it was stated that “live ponderosa pine, blue or Engelmann spruce, Douglas-fir, limber pine and aspen are targeted to be retained.” This lulled me into complacency, as did the promise from the USFS in April 2013 that I would be notified before any cutting commenced – I never was. And the reality is that all the listed trees other than aspen and Ponderosa 12” diameter are targeted to be cut unless they are less than 5.6” in diameter (in areas scheduled for clearcutting).

The Treatment Details for the Lump Gulch Fuels Reduction Project, under which the area adjacent to our property was treated, specify that “Patchcuts and clearcuts would be located in homogenous lodgepole pine stands that are currently infested with mountain pine beetle….” This did not describe the area treated, so under the plan itself, the area should have been thinned rather than clearcut.
There ARE homogenous beetle-infested stands in this parcel, but they are NOT scheduled for cutting. Dense, unhealthy lodgepole stands resulting from a fire 100 years ago line the area immediately behind residents on Peakview Drive. To make matters worse, the old patchcuts full of dense 12-year-old lodgepoles run all along and immediately behind these dense stands. Because defense of Big Springs is the top priority for the NVFD, this should be of concern to the larger community.

Those interested in viewing lodgepole stands full of dead trees that are being left can visit the bike trail at the east end of Peakview Drive (when there is no logging activity). If you walk up the trail you will come to an area of clearcutting, and you can see the large stumps of removed trees, the overwhelming majority of which were healthy. Look up the hill to your right, and you will see stands of lodgepole full of dead trees. None of these will be removed. There is even one lodgepole within the area marked for cutting that was retained but is full of beetle hits.

This trail was severely eroded during the floods last Fall, and there is a spring that was opened up during flooding that is still flowing onto Peakview.  In addition to doubting that all the large old healthy trees needed to be cut for fire mitigation, I fear the now-bare, steep slopes can be expected to increase erosion during the next heavy rains, with the potential for more flooding onto Peakview Drive.
Community members whose driveways are Forest Service roads lined with dense stands of lodgepole have reason for concern. During the May 23rd meeting, NVFD  Deputy Chief  Ryan Roberts stated flatly that he would not send firefighters through that kind of forest. Landowners are prohibited from cutting live trees on USFS land, so some remedy needs to be found.

Judging from past history of USFS projects, the end result of the clearcutting near Big Springs will be many more acres of dense stands of same-age lodgepole. Though the USFS is giving lip service to a diverse, multi-age forest, their clearcuts are destroying diverse areas of forest that already exist. Their plan to plant seedlings in these areas is no substitute.

Plans to cut beautiful old conifers along the lovely trail south of Lazy-Z Road to Gross Dam Reservoir have little to do with high-priority fire mitigation and more to do with accessibility via a Forest Service road. But to human residents, this area is highly valued in part BECAUSE it is accessible and provides a peaceful retreat from the stresses of daily life.

The USFS is under the Agriculture Department, and an important part of its mandate is to manage forests for optimal timber production/harvest. It also has a conservation mandate, but there is sometimes tension between these two responsibilities. With increasing popular support for preservation of healthy forests, areas of “urban-wildland interface” where communities live within the forest will inevitably be the scenes of conflict between those supporting timber harvest and those supporting preservation.

With its responsibility for fire mitigation and suppression on tens of thousands of acres of wildland forest, it’s understandable that Forest Service officials grow impatient with human desire for forest aesthetics, peace and quiet, recreation opportunities and other values to sometimes take precedence over timber harvest.

All those I’ve spoken to support fire mitigation, but much of this cutting does little toward that goal and much toward decreasing forest health, wildlife habitat (e.g., number of birds at our feeders has gone down by 95%), and opportunities for residents to find the peace that undisturbed natural areas offer.

I urge town officials to have experts review carefully USFS plans for the treatment of areas within town boundaries and to look for ways to mitigate fire danger in the dense lodgepole stands along the town’s southern border on Peakview Drive.

Susan Wagner
Magnolia Drive, Nederland

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