USFS emphasizes collaboration on Breck logging plan

A file image from summer shows a logged area, with healthy regrowth of wildflowers and young lodgepole pines against a backdrop of beetle-killed red trees. The agency wants to treat a widespread area around Breckenridge to reduce wildfire risk and spur forest regeneration, but residents of the Peak 7 neighborhood continue to express concerns about widespread clear cuts. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.

Some Peak 7 residents still concerned that the proposal calls for too much clear cutting; Forest Service says it’s still refining maps for treatment areas based on public input

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — The proposed forest health project in the Breckenridge area is evolving, as Forest Service rangers incorporate feedback from the public and local officials during an up-front collaboration phase.

Peech Keller, who coordinates environmental reviews for projects on the Dillon Ranger District, said the Breckenridge plan has already changed based on early feedback from the community. Some areas previously slated for mechanical tree removal will be treated by hand instead. Rangers are also starting to pinpoint areas where they will leave stands of spruce, fir and aspen, as well as delineating sensitive wetlands to be avoided.

But some residents who live on Peak 7 are afraid the Forest Service is only paying lip service to the public process, and that the agency’s final plan will still include too much clear cutting and treatments in areas too far away from homes to do much good in the way of fire protection.

Rangers have acknowledged that some of the treatment areas may not fall into the direct red zone, but said the proposal also is intended to try and restore areas hit hard by pine beetle mortality.

Covering an overall area of about 5,700 acres, the proposal has dual goals: to reduce fuel loading and the risk of fire to neighborhoods near the forest, and to help regenerate areas killed by mountain pine beetles.

The Forest Service is evaluating the plan under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which requires more public input during the early phases of planning, but cuts down on some procedural steps during the more-formal review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

There has been some controversy over the healthy forests act, as watchdog groups sometimes claim that it cuts the public out of some steps in the process and eliminates the opportunity for appeals after the decision is issued.

But Forest Service planning experts like Keller prefer to see it as a glass half-full.

“The whole point is to bring the public into the process early,” Keller said. She explained that, under the healthy forests act, the agency is required to hold and open house, and required to involve the public in the planning process at the earliest stages.

Where the process is streamlined somewhat is in the final stages.

“We don’t need to look at 17 alternatives … because we’re modifying the proposed action right up to the EA,” she said, using the Forest Service acronym for “Environmental Analysis,” the formal and legally required review under federal environmental laws.

Instead preparing a slate of alternatives, the Forest Service is only required to look at two — the proposed action and a no-action alternative.

Keller said the Breckenridge process is working as envisioned, with a feedback loop between the agency and the public helping to create a dynamic plan that will have widespread community support when it’s finalized.

But some residents in the Peak 7 aren’t so sure. Jane Hendrix, who has taken on the role of informal spokesperson for people who are concerned about the plan, said she thinks the Forest Service plan is driven by the need to include a commercial timber sale component with the project.

Along with other residents of the area, Hendrix wants the agency to focus much more narrowly on a defensible space component, with treatments aimed at areas directly adjacent to homes and roads.

As well, the Summit County wildfire council sent a formal comment letter to the Forest Service, asking the agency to maintain a focus on the red zone — the area where homes and other developments are at risk from fire.

A number of residents in the Peak 7 neighborhood expressed serious reservations about the project early on. They said the Forest Service was proposing too much clear-cutting away from homes and along trails in the area.

Hendrix also said a previous site visit was marked by a lot of skepticism on the part of area residents, who asked pointed questions about the extent of clear-cutting and the ability of the Forest Service.

“We all felt like they were talking down to us,” Hendrix said, charging that the Forest Service didn’t address public comments head-on, but retreated into procedural jargon. “We don’t think there’s an honest attempt at compromise on their part. They’re just hoping we’ll get tired of this and go away,” she said.

Keller said the Forest Service is still refining its maps to show that not all the areas designated for treatment will be clear cut. The maps the agency uses in the early planning are not detailed enough to illustrate all the pockets of vegetation that will be left standing, or the wetlands that will be avoided, she said.

To help area residents get a better feel for the plan, the Forest Service has planned a field trip for Jan. 9, aimed mainly at residents of the Peak 7 neighborhood. Keller said the plan is to walk along parts of the Peaks Trail and identify various areas with different levels of beetle-kill so people can visualize where the treatments will be made and what the areas might look like afterward.

For more information on the site visit, click here.


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