Critics claim Old Snowmass habitat project harms birds
A clear-cutting project on the midvalley’s Light Hill has put some wildlife lovers at odds with the state agency supervising the care of critters.
A contractor for the Colorado Division of Wildlife and Bureau of Land Management used heavy equipment this month to clear oak brush and service berry shrubs off 376 acres at the top of Light Hill, a prominent hump in the Old Snowmass area.
The public agencies said the project is vital for clearing thick, old and dying mountain shrubbery to spur growth of grasses and flowering plants that make Light Hill critical winter range for elk and sage brush that mule deer depend on.
The work will improve the quality of the habitat rather than allow Light Hill to support larger populations of ungulates, said wildlife division spokesman Randy Hampton. “It will better support the animals.”
But wildlife enthusiasts Randy Brimm and Chris Lane, both of Basalt, claimed the project came at too great of an ecological cost. It was undertaken when many ground- and shrub-nesting birds were raising their second batch of young, a process called double clutching.
“If they’d just waited a month, think of the thousands of babies that would have been saved,” said Brimm.
The project captured the attention of outdoor enthusiasts soon after it started in early June. Hikers on the popular Arbaney-Kittle Trail, across the valley floor, noticed as more of the vegetation on the hillside disappeared. It was like a stain spreading on Light Hill. Hikers and bikers using the public road on Light Hill received a bigger jolt.
“It’s just shocking to see what kind of destruction is going on up there,” Brimm said. Brimm’s wife, Althea, thought private land was being cleared for a new subdivision when she first saw the site, he said.
The cleared area isn’t visible from Highway 82 or the Gateway subdivision lower on Light Hill.
A visit to the site Monday morning showed that most of the mountain shrubbery within the 375-acre work site was pulverized with a piece of heavy machinery called a tracked mulcher. The bulldozer-like machine chews up the vegetation and covers the ground with mulch of varying thickness. Islands of vegetation were left untouched along with shrubs lining drainages.
The idea, Hampton said, was to create a mosaic that creates a varied habitat. “You can’t go in and do what Mother Nature typically does, which is to burn it,” Hampton said. Lack of fire created vegetation so thick that it was impenetrable even for big game.
Hampton acknowledged the project had impacts on wildlife species, particularly birds. “You cannot do this work without having some impact,” he said.
However, the wildlife division felt the benefits far outweighed the negative impacts “in the big picture,” he claimed. “People will see, down the road, the wildlife benefits we were looking for.”
The wildlife division wanted to start the project as soon as possible this year so that grasses and flowering plants could take hold in the opened area. That will minimize erosion. The timing came at a price to baby birds.
“We wish there was a time of year we could to this without any [negative] impacts,” Hampton said.
Brimm said the decision-making process used by the public agencies was flawed. The state wildlife division is too oriented toward deer and elk “for the revenue coming from hunters,” he said.
It didn’t take him long to find other outdoor enthusiasts shared his opinion. Brimm and Lane talked about the project last week and decided they must try to prevent it from happening again.
Lane is a former Basalt town councilman and vice president of environmental affairs for a company called Xanterra Parks and Resorts Inc., which runs concessions in several national parks. He said he regularly rides his mountain bike on Light Hill and found the character drastically changed by the project. “You feel like you’re on a bald knob,” he said. Previously, the road traveled through a tunnel of vegetation.
Lane questioned the value of the project for improving elk and deer habitat when “thousands of birds” were killed.
“I’d like to see it stopped until adequate analysis could be done to assess whether the cost is worth the benefits,” Lane said.
There are additional phases in what the public agencies call the Light Hill Habitat Restoration Project. The mulcher is scheduled to treat another 180 acres of Light Hill next year, according to Ody Anderson, a fuels specialist with the Bureau of Land Management in Glenwood Springs. A prescribed burn is scheduled on 100 acres next year. In addition, crews will hand cut pinion and juniper on about 60 acres.
The project reduces fire danger as well as improves wildlife habitat, Anderson said. The cut swath creates a firebreak at the top of the mountain. If a lightning strike triggers a wildfire, it will move slower and allow agencies to fight it more effectively before it can spread to the Gateway subdivision. The cleared land also creates safe zones for firefighters, he said.
The treated area will be covered with grass and flowering plants next spring, Anderson said. Two years from now it will show good growth of oak brush and service berry.
“The place is going to look fabulous is two years,” he said.
The claim is little consolation to Lane. He said the BLM should have done a more thorough analysis of the project, including more notification of the public. Anderson said he approached caucuses in the affected neighborhoods, like the Emma Caucus and Snowmass-Capitol Creek Caucus, but didn’t receive any comments. The planning was done last winter. The project was subject to the National Environmental Protection Act, which requires environmental reviews of federal projects. It received what is known as a “categorical exclusion” for allegedly posing few impacts.
Lane said the public at-large deserved to know more before the project began. “How about notifying the public you’re going to decapitate Light Hill?” he said.
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