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Fending off fires

Dennis Webb

The U.S. Forest Service is considering a mix of cutting and burning – and a little munching by goats – to reduce fire danger in the Crystal River Valley.The agency is focusing primarily on oakbrush removal in a proposed project that aims to reduce fire danger to homes and private land, boost winter range for wildlife and restore fire to fire-dependent ecosystems.It also is considering the use of browsing goats as one means of keeping oakbrush from growing back to dangerous levels in areas where the project would create fuel breaks.”The darn stuff sprouts back really significantly,” said White River National Forest fire ecologist Brenda Wilmore. “We’re going to have to do some maintenance.”Wilmore said use of goats is becoming a bit more common as a means of controlling weeds and the growth of flammable fuels. One military base in Utah has deployed goats for this purpose for years with good success, she said.The Forest Service is targeting eight parcels for fuel reduction. Six are all 40 acres or less, and work on those parcels would involve cutting of trees by chain saws and other methods over a total of about 126 acres combined. Also planned are a 610-acre burn in the Potato Bill Creek area off Highway 133, northwest of Mount Sopris, and a 230-acre burn in the Bogan Flats area off the road from 133 to Marble.The Forest Service is conducting the project under the authority of President Bush’s Healthy Forest Initiative, and expects to make use of the initiative’s expanded provisions for using categorical exclusions, which exempt projects from a full-fledged environmental review process. However, the agency is still conducting an environmental analysis of the project, taking into consideration such factors as the area’s scenic and recreation values, the existence of bighorn sheep habitat in some of the targeted areas, and the need to protect two globally rare plants in the nearby Assignation Creek area. Also, the Assignation Ridge roadless area is within two of the treatment areas, and the project is prohibited from jeopardizing its eligibility to be designated as wilderness.The Forest Service is accepting public comments through Dec. 1 and hopes to make a decision on the project by March. It could go ahead with it as planned, modify its proposed locations or design, decide on a different approach to fuels reduction, or defer any action.In some areas, the Forest Service proposes to thin 70 percent of brush closest to private property, then 50 percent further back, and then 30 percent, to reduce the visual impact of the work.”Hopefully it will blend in a bit more to the natural landscape,” said Wilmore.Wilmore said the project is being driven by the National Fire Plan, and wildfire danger issues arising in what’s known as the wildland/urban interface.”More homes are being built in natural fuels landscapes so there’s more risk to those homes,” she said.She said the Forest Service projects will provide the most safety to homeowners if they are done in conjunction with fuel reduction work around the homes and neighborhoods.The Healthy Forests Initiative created five new categorical exclusions for forest projects, with the goal of streamlining the bureaucratic process. This isn’t the first time one of them has been put to use in the White River National Forest. Last fall, the Forest Service made use of an exclusion in connection with a logging project aimed at reducing an outbreak of beetles in the Little Box Canyon area in the Flat Tops north of Silt.Some environmentalists object to the use of the categorical exclusion because it means the project is not subject to administrative appeal and can be implemented immediately. The only recourse opponents have is to go to court.Wilmore said the Forest Service has been speaking to residents of affected subdivisions as well as elected officials, fire department representatives and others in the Crystal River Valley about the fuel reduction plan.”So far people have been very supportive, so I’m hoping it will go well,” she said.If the work goes forward, it would begin next spring and continue through 2010. Wilmore said the burns probably would start in 2006.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com


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