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Forest Service seeking exemptions for beetle-kill work

The ski industry is working with the Forest Service to try and speed the removal of beetle-killed trees.

Regional officials say normal timber contracting procedures are too slow and costly for dealing with the unprecedented emergency

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Local ski resorts are working with the US Forest Service and with national and state ski industry trade groups to try and get a special exemption from timber sale requirments  to help speed the work of removing beetle-killed trees from ski area slopes.

Under the regional proposal, ski areas and other special permit use holders like gas and power companies would be able to cut and remove trees without having to go through the red tape of a timber sale contract and without site-specific environmental reviews.

Regional forester Rick Cables sent a letter to the agency’s national leaders in May, explaining that some of the streamlining mechanisms that have already been adopted have helped, but that the problem is so urgent that more flexibility is needed.

The National Ski Areas Association reached out to the Forest Service to make sure that if the exemption is granted, it would apply to other regions, according to NSAA policy director Geraldine Link.

“Cutting the red tape is a good incentive to get the work done,” Link said.

“We’re frustrated with the lack of response from the Washington Office of the Forest Service and feel there is a bit of a cultural disconnect within the agency which allows the timber people to insist that removing hazardous beetle kill trees from a ski area where the public recreates be treated as a timber sale,” said Colorado Ski Country USA president and CEO Melanie Mills. “(That) takes forever and requires the ski area to have the trees appraised and to pay for the timber. It bogs the process down and makes it needlessly costly,” Mills said.

“The resorts’ primary focus is on removing hazard trees and doing some treatment–we’ll start to see regeneration and new growth — more mixed-age stands of tree — there’s no scenario where all trees at a resort would be removed. It will be a gradual evolution and the visual and trail impacts of removing beetle trees will be muted by the new growth.”

Cables advocated for that flexibility in his letter to the agency’s national leaders:

“We need additional flexibility to allow authorized holders of special use permits to cut and remove all dead and dying trees that pose a threat to the integrity of their facilities and/or a health and safety threat without charge, without designation and without timber sale contract,” Cables wrote.

More from the letter:

“I believe it is in the public interest to waive traditional timber preparation and disposal requirements for this extraordinary circumstance. The cost to fell, skid, deck, load, and haul the trees exceeds delivered product value … We propose to accomplish this using a special use authorization that will be written to ensure resource and legal protections identified through environmental documentation or law. After imminent dangers have been addressed, we would revert to traditional requirements for preparing and disposing of timber.”

Copper Mountain Resort president and chief operating officer Gary Rodgers mentioned the letter during last week’s ski area update in Breckenridge, explaining that he was disappointed that the regional Forest Service office hasn’t received a response from agency headquarters. Mountain pine beetles haven’t created a huge problem at Rodgers’ resort yet, Copper’s slopes are mostly timbered with spruce and fir. But he said the next insect outbreak could be a spruce beetle.

Acting regional forester Tony Dixon said the pine beetle infestation has been recognized as a national problem that requires innovative and collaborative solutions. He said the region office is still discussing the exemption request, which could be decided at the cabinet level by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

“We’re exploring every option to address this unprecedented event,” Dixon said. The intent of the exemption is to give permittees the capability to address the beetle-kill in the most flexible way possible, he said. “We’re already using all the tools under NEPA to get the job done,” he added, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act, which guides federal government reviews and approvals of projects on public lands.

The exemption could help speed the process of clearing the dead and dying trees and help address the fundamental economic reality that the value of the timber is less than the cost of removing it.

“This is unprecedented to all of us and requires a collaborative approach,” Dixon concluded.

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