Forest Service, enviros at odds over plan to revive aspen tree stands
White River National Forest wants prescribed burns, timber harvests on 375,000 acres
A proposal to try to revive aspen stands across 375,000 acres of the White River National Forest has drawn criticism from environmentalists, endorsements from some local governments and concerns from spelunkers.
The U.S. Forest Service wants to use prescribed fires and timber harvests to improve the health in areas where aspen forests are in decline. The agency said aspen trees have a strong presence on about 600,000 of the 2.3 million acres of the White River forest, which stretches from Independence Pass to the Flat Tops and from Rifle to Summit County. The Forest Service identified about 375,000 acres as in need of enhanced management because of factors such as drought, disease, pests and the age of trees. In addition, conifer trees are invading some aspen stands.
“Under natural conditions, wildfire would play an important role in reinitiating aspen forests on those sites,” the Forest Service proposal said. “However, fire suppression over the past few decades has likely resulted in a greater amount of conifer and a lesser amount of aspen across the White River National Forest.”
The proposed management would involve targeting about 10,000 acres per decade through prescribed fires and another 10,000 acres per decade through timber harvests. However, the plan does not identify specific areas or prioritize where the work would occur first. That’s a point of contention with environmental groups. They say the public deserves a chance to comment on a case-by-case basis.
The town of Vail endorsed the project but said a more aggressive approach is needed to have an impact.
“The scale of this project does not match the rapid change in condition of the forest’s aspen stands,” the town government said in comments submitted to the Forest Service. “At this scale it would take 18 decades to treat all the potential stands identified in this proposed action. We would ask that you consider increasing the maximum allowable acres to levels that would appropriately address the identified need.”
The project was also endorsed by the county commissioners of Summit and Rio Blanco counties.
Rocky Smith, a longtime environmental advocate and researcher, presented an opposite view. He said targeting 20,000 acres of aspen stands for management per decade is not warranted because nature will achieve the same results.
“With about 50 percent of the White River National Forest’s aspen being stable and a likelihood of increasing fire that will cause some aspen stands to regenerate, large-scale treatment is a waste of money and other resources,” Smith wrote. “We recommend the project be dropped or considerably downsized to treating local areas where aspen clones appear to be dying out.”
His comments were endorsed by multiple environmental organizations, including Aspen-based EcoFlight, Colorado Wild and Durango-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness.
The Roaring Fork Valley’s oldest homegrown environmental advocacy group, Wilderness Workshop, submitted form letters from 275 individuals. The letter raised three points: First, the agency must analyze the impacts of the project on climate; second, that the proposal doesn’t follow the National Environmental Policy Act because it doesn’t specify areas to be managed or give the public the chance to comment on specific portions of the project; and third, that temporary roads could alter the character of roadless areas and management techniques could affects areas with caves and karsts.
“This proposed project is too large and too impactful, to move forward at this time,” the letters said. “The White River National Forest should shelve or significantly revise this project.”
Wilderness Workshop also teamed with the Center for Biological Diversity and The Wilderness Society to submit 10 pages of detailed comments. In contrast to Vail saying 20,000 acres of treatment per decade was too little, the environmental groups said it is too much.
“The project would authorize harvesting and burning 20,000 acres — more than 30 square miles — of aspen trees per decade, as well as road construction and reconstruction activities.”
The Forest Service received 31 comments during the official comment period, many of them endorsed by multiple individuals or organizations.
What’s the issue? The White River National Forest wants to undertake prescribed burns and timber harvests on 375,000 acres to improve the health of aspen stands.
What’s the beef? Proponents say the pace of the project is too slow. The U.S. Forest Service is proposing treatment on 20,000 acres per decade. Environmentalists question the need for the project based on effects on climate and creation of roads. They also contend the Forest Service is violating rules by not specifically identifying where the work would occur.
What’s next? The White River staff is analyzing public comments and undertaking environmental analysis for a draft Environmental Assessment. The EA could be released for public review in the fall.
Details: The proposal and public comments can be viewed at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=59419
Several individuals expressed concern about the effects of prescribes burns and timber harvests on caves, the bats that occupy them and karsts formed in limestone in part of the forest.
The White River National Forest staff is in the process of analyzing comments as part of its environmental review, David Boyd, the Forest’s public information officer said Thursday.
“The next step we anticipate is an Environmental Assessment with a draft decision, which would be published for a 45-day objection period,” he said.
Changes could be made to the plan based on the comments and environmental analysis, Boyd said. Identifying 20,000 acres per decade for treatment is a starting point that could be altered, he said.
There is no firm deadline for the release of the draft EA but it could come as early this fall, according to Boyd.
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