Controlled burns needed to treat dead lodgepoles

White River NF supervisor says mechanical treatments not enough for forest health; prescribed fires needed to clear dangerous fuels

Beetle-killed forests now dominate the landscape in Summit County. Prescribed fires are needed to help regenerate forests and clear dangerous fuels, according to White River NF supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Mechanical logging treatments aren’t enough to treat forests after the current outbreak of mountain pine beetles in Colorado, according to White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, who continued to advocate for the reintroduction of fire into the landscape at a recent meeting of the Summit County Forest Health Task Force.

Fitzwilliams also addresses the topic in-depth on the Jan. 15 EarthUp program on Mountain Public Radio, airing at 8:30 a.m. In Summit County, tune in to 88.7 or 100.7, or listen online. The interview is also available on demand at the Earthup podcast site. Read more about some of the early Forest Service discussions on prescribed burns at this Summit Voice story.

This Summit Voice story describes research showing prescribed burns produce less CO2 emissions than out-of-control, catastrophic wildfires.

“Fire is a much more efficient and cost-effective way to remove fuels,” Fitzwilliams said, outlining a 10-year plan to build public support and to develop realistic prescribed fire projects that would clear some of the dead trees and vastly speed forest regeneration.

Fitzwilliams has already proposed a landscape-level habitat restoration project in the Roaring Fork Valley based on the role of fire in the landscape.

The Roaring Fork project would treat up to 26,000 acres with prescribed fire. Another 19,400 acres would be improved with a combination of fire and mechanical treatments. The project documents are online here.

“Restoring degraded habitat is an important goal shared by many federal and state biologists in the area,” said Phil Nyland, wildlife biologist for the Aspen and Sopris Ranger Districts and leader for this project. “As professionals, we agree that the time for action has arrived. To benefit large numbers of wildlife, the need for action should be addressed at the landscape level.”

“The reality is that much of the wildlife habitat in the valley floor has been developed,” Fitzwilliams said. “This makes the national forest lands above the valley floor even more important for wildlife.  This landscape-scale proposal is essential for improving this habitat so we can continue to enjoy abundant wildlife.  Working with the communities and our partners, I am confident we can complete this important work,” he said. A Forest Service blog will help foster an online dialogue on the Roaring Fork project, he added.

Using fire in the lodgepole pine forests of Summit County is more challenging. Fire has always been part of the lodgepole ecosystem, but fires in the montane forests are often large, burning across thousands of acres at a time. Given the amount of development and level of recreational use in Summit County, the agency needs to carefully weigh all the factors in developing plans for prescribed fires — not the least of which are the risk of the fire “escaping” its planned boundaries, and issue of smoke.

Colorado’s strict air quality rules come into play, as do the very real human health impacts on people with asthma or other respiratory ailments, Fitzwilliams said.


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