Summit County logging proposal raises universal questions about beetle-kill and forest health
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — U.S. Forest Service rangers got an earful Thursday night in Frisco, as residents commented on the agency’s latest forest health proposal for about 1,700 acres on and around Ophir Mountain, between Frisco and Breckenridge.
The Forest Service wants to treat areas where mountain pine beetles have already killed up to 80 percent of the mature lodgepole pines with the goals of reducing fuel loading and regenerating the forest. Read the scoping notice here.
The agency is taking written comments on the proposal through Nov. 1. During the winter, a team of specialists will review and address those comments in the environmental analysis, which will be released next spring. Get more details on the proposal and information on commenting at the end of this story.
During the lively question and answer session, some area residents raised questions about the extent of proposed clear-cutting and expressed concerns about impact to trails — similar to questions that were raised about the Breckenridge forest health and fuels reduction project, scheduled to be issued in its final form within the next couple of weeks. While the proposal has the potential to become contentious, at least some residents have an open mind.
“I’m willing to learn. I’m still trying to gather all the facts,” said Susan Spencer, who was still digesting some of the information presented at the open house. Spencer said she frequently hikes in parts of the proposed project area and has concerns that the logging might unintentionally spread into areas of forest that are still healthy. One of her favorite spots on Ophir Mountain includes the biggest spruce that she’s seen in Summit County, and she doesn’t want the loggers to run amok.
Spencer said she’s not sure how well the agency will live up to its requirements to monitor the logging, and to properly reclaim the roads and other affected areas afterward, as she acknowledged how difficult the agency’s job is when it comes to balancing all the factors.
Overall, some of the comments reflect the larger debate over active forest management versus passive non-management that has prevailed for several decades — and Forest Service officials said they’re no sure their message is getting through to the public.
“I’m still frustrated. “There’s a wall we couldn’t breach between us,” said Peech Keller, a day after the meeting. “We’re not just treating a little WUI strip,” she said, referring to the wildland-urban interface, where tree-clearing is intended to reduce the direct fire risk to homes.
Keller, who coordinates environmental studies for the Forest Service, said the agency is focused on trying to treat areas it can manage in the future, to make them less prone to extensive insect infestations and perhaps more resilient in the face of long-term climate change.
Most of all, Keller wants people to take a long-term view of the forest. In order to understand the future, you have to look at the past, she said, pointing out that some of the last remaining areas of healthy green lodgepoles left in Summit County are patches that were clearcut 30 years ago. The agency knew then that the lodgepole forests were prone to beetle-kill — studies indicated that about 90 percent of Summit County’s lodgepole stands were at moderate to high-risk.
And the agency had a plan to try and lessen the impact by treating 14,000 acres every ten years. The work was started, as evidenced by the clear cuts in the Barton Creek area, as well as around Frey Gulch, in the Keystone area. Records document a decline in the spread of the beetles throughout the project area, perhaps partially in response to to the treatments and partially in response to colder weather. After those initial treatments, the Forest Service identified an opportunity to shift its focus from suppression to restoration — but in the early 1990s the work stalled.
“There was no public support,” said Brett Crary, the project manager for the Ophir Mountain proposal. Crary has been scrutinizing some of those old studies as he designs the Ophir Mountain plan, hoping to learn from the earlier efforts.Crary said he is hoping to get specific comments from the public during the last week of the scoping phase that will help the Forest Service address specific concerns.
There was strong opposition to any kind of logging. The Forest Service faced litigation and appeals at every turn, according to Keller. Eventually, the agency simply gave up, she said, adding that, for the sake of our kids and grandkids, the rangers don’t want to make the same mistake again.
“We’re living in our own mess right now,” she said, explaining that lack of active management and stewardship is partially responsible for our current pine beetle predicament.
“Some people accused us of mismanagement in the 1980s … some people have accused us of lying. It really hits you where it hurts sometimes,” Keller said. “Some people can’t see beyond their noses. They are not taking the long view,” she said, suggesting that some of the people who commented are only concerned about their own short-term recreational experiences or aesthetic expectations. “We won’t be able to get into those areas for 100 years if we don’t do it now,” she said, speaking to the reality that the dead trees will fall down into what’s known as a jackstraw pattern, piled up to where access will be nearly impossible.
Along with the access issue, the fallen trees will add up to about 100 tons of fuel per acre, potentially setting the stage for a catastrophic fire that could bake the ground into sterility.
The Forest Service proposal is based in part on Summit County’s community wildfire protection plan and falls within a wildland-urban interface zone where fires present risks to nearby communities, recreational facilities and infrastructure.
The project would involve a total of 11.3 miles of haul roads, including 9.3 miles of proposed temporary roads in the area. Some of those are old, unused roads within the project area.
According to the purpose and need statement, four access points would be used:
- The first haul route would be located along the trail next to the County Commons area on the south side of Frisco (NFSR 1000.1). The second route would be located through the Iron Springs USFS gate north of Summit County High School (NFSR 986.1). The third route would be located through an access point adjacent to private lands and southwest of Summit County High School off of County Road 980. The fourth haul route would be located through the Gold Hill USFS gate off of County Road 950. These routes were selected in order to provide the lowest impact to the surrounding resources while providing the most direct route available to CO Hwy 9.
- Temporary roads are being proposed in order to access treatment sites. In total there are 9.3 miles of proposed temporary roads. Of those roads, approximately 4.0 miles currently are old or unused roads persisting from previous management activities. As such, these roads would not be expected to require any extraordinary effort in order to prepare them for use. Furthermore, the use of an already existing road would help to minimize the areas of disturbance and compaction to soils throughout the proposed treatment area.
- The remaining 5.3 miles of proposed temporary roads would require new construction. These temporary roads would be used to access proposed treatment sites which occur beyond any reasonable access from existing roads. These temporary roads would be developed strategically and such that the overall equipment use and associated soil disturbance would be minimized. All temporary roads would be developed such that skid distances would be minimized and none would be greater than approximately 1,200 ft in length.
- The project area extends from the Summit County bike path on the south side of Frisco eastward beyond the Summit Medical Center to a northernmost point at the bend of Highway 9 next to Dillon Reservoir; then south adjacent to the private and county lands along the western side of Highway 9 and behind Summit County High School, beyond Lakeview Circle and the Gold Hill neighborhood and south to the northern edge of North Barton Gulch.
- The western boundary of the proposed project area is located on the east side and upslope about 1,000 ft. from Miner’s Creek, south from Rainbow Lake to North Barton Gulch Within this project area the units proposed for treatment total approximately 1,600 acres.
The logging would lower the existing and building fuel loads and help regenerate the forest. This project would also be expected to result in improvements for other forest resources, such as scenery and recreation over the long term following the ongoing mountain pine beetle epidemic.
Under the commonly used stewardship contracts, salvage of dead and dying lodgepole pine would also provide for some cost recovery to help offset the cost of treatment, according to the Forest Service.
The project will be reviewed under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which front-loads the planning process to give the public a chance to get involved early and cuts down on the tail-end appeals process.
According to the Forest Service, most of the dead trees are expected to fall to the ground within 20 years, creating the potential for large-scale and destructive fire with the potential to bake the ground until it’s almost sterile. Clearing patches of dead trees within the project area could establish a mosaic of different-aged trees that may be less susceptible to future insect infestations, the agency said in it’s purpose and need statement.
“We are at that point in the development of this project where we need to hear from the public regarding any concerns they may have with what we are proposing,” said Dillon District Ranger Jan Cutts.
Written comments will be the most helpful is they’re submitted by November 1. Written comments should be addressed to Jan Cutts, Dillon District Ranger, c/o Peech Keller, P.O. Box 620, Silverthorne, CO 80498 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments should include the following: 1) your name, address, telephone number, organization represented, if any; 2) the name of the project you are commenting on; and 3) specific facts and supporting reasons for your issues.
If you need further information about the proposed Ophir Mountain Forest Health Project, call Brett Crary at (970) 827-5182 or Peech Keller at (970) 262-3495.