Op-ed: Roaring Fork project will improve habitat

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams advocates for landscape-level intervention with controlled burns

By Scott Fitzwilliams

Managing ecosystems on a landscape scale is challenging, especially when we are talking about landscapes like the Roaring Fork Valley, where there is considerable human development.

No one agency manages all of the land; no one agency manages all of the resources. Native plants and animals do not know or recognize the difference between public land and private land. They are much more interested in what the habitat has to offer. Past and current management in the Roaring Fork has resulted in deteriorated habitat conditions that no longer support the healthy populations of native plants and animals that it could; this is especially true as human activity continues to encroach on valley habitat.

The Forest Service has proposed a wildlife habitat improvement project for the Roaring Fork Valley and its tributaries. If approved, it would treat some 50,000 acres where reproduction, winter range and summer foraging opportunities have become degraded due to the disruption or cessation of fire and other natural disturbance events. Fifty thousand acres amounts to less than 5.4 percent of the total area of the Roaring Fork watershed.  Much of the area would be treated with prescribed fire. Where the use of fire would be inappropriate or unsafe because of proximity to human development, mechanical treatments have been proposed.

Projects like this one are indeed risky. Any time you use prescribed fire, there are risks of escape and managing smoke is often unpredictable. I am keenly aware of these risks and I take them very seriously. However, I believe the risks of doing nothing are much higher. If we want diverse vegetation that supports a wide variety of wildlife, from elk to song birds, We must act now at a meaningful scale.

Human activities in our valley have altered ecological function at a landscape level. Habitat quality for deer, elk and bighorn sheep are in awful shape across the valley. This is due to conversion of winter range to housing and other development, and the aggressive suppression of natural disturbance such as fire. Improving wildlife habitats at less than a landscape scale will be ineffective.

Concerns that this project is associated with commercial logging or will result in the loss of old-growth trees are simply untrue. This project is about improving vegetation diversity to enhance wildlife habitat. In addition, the proposal has been developed in a way that roadless areas retain their roadless character (no roads or trails will be built).

I have set up a blog for this project to serve as a forum for sharing information and encouraging dialogue. The following link will take you to the blog: http://roaringforkhabitat.blogspot.com/

Right now this project is only a proposal; a proposal for which we are seeking public participation and comment.  I urge everyone to go to our website and learn more about the proposed project. Information about the proposal can be found at http://www.fs.usda.gov/whiteriver and navigating to Land and Resources Management/Projects.

I encourage all residents of the Roaring Fork Valley to get involved in this decision. Learn about the proposal, ask questions about the proposal, and take the time to let us know what you think.

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