PitCo: Does cash drive decisions on saving the forest?
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
A U.S. Forest Service plan to deal with the mountain pine beetle at local ski areas, in partnership with the Aspen Skiing Co., raised brows among Pitkin County commissioners this week.
Commissioner Michael Owsley again questioned whether the federal agency is looking out for the health of the White River National Forest as a whole, or only the areas where private dollars are available to deal with the impact of the destructive beetle epidemic.
He voiced similar concerns when the Forest Service recently announced a plan to remove 3,000 dead or dying trees from the national forest near Starwood, an exclusive subdivision near Aspen. There, private funding will cover the expense of felling trees by hand and hauling them out of the forest with use of a helicopter. The National Forest Foundation is a participant in that project.
Financing from the ski company is now triggering work at the ski areas, Owsley suggested during a meeting of commissioners on Tuesday.
“How does this fit into the overall health of the White River National Forest? What goals does it achieve?” he said. “What’s going on here?”
It appears that when someone has the cash, the work will get done, agreed Commissioner Jack Hatfield.
“My impression is, on the private sector side, if the funding is there, then the Forest Service wants to work with them,” he said.
“Some of these treatments might be very valuable,” Hatfield added, saying he doesn’t want to pre-judge the ski area project, which has yet to undergo an environmental review.
The Forest Service is working on a proposal for vegetation treatments at Aspen Highlands, Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk and Snowmass over the next five to 10 years. The plan will be the subject of an environmental analysis; a draft is due out in the spring. A public comment period on the analysis will follow.
The Forest Service would not consider a privately funded project that didn’t meet the agency’s goals, said Scott Fitzwilliams, White River National Forest supervisor, on Wednesday.
“The project has to be part of what we want to do. It has to make sense,” he said. “It has to be work we would do if we had the money.”
Fitzwilliams will have an opportunity to explain the agency’s position to commissioners next week. He and Scott Snelson, Aspen-Sopris District ranger, are scheduled to meet with commissioners on Jan. 11 to discuss beetle projects.
The Forest Service has set priorities in dealing with the beetle infestation, according to Fitzwilliams. They include public safety and reducing fire risk in areas where the forest abuts development. Cutting dead and dying trees on ski areas, along roads and trails, and in campgrounds is among the efforts to keep people safe from falling trees, he said.
The agency is looking at vegetation management at all 11 ski areas within the White River, which encompasses places like Vail, Breckenridge and Keystone, as well as the slopes of Aspen-Snowmass.
“Ski areas are a place where you have 9 million people a year on the forest,” Fitzwilliams said.
Locally, the Skico will undertake the work in accordance with the Forest Service plan. Maintaining the ski areas is a requirement of the company’s permit with the agency, according to Fitzwilliams.
Infested trees will be cut down to minimize the spread of beetles; forest stands will be thinned to promote new growth and age diversity; and insecticides will be used to try to save specific “high-value trees,” according to an announcement on the environmental assessment.
“I would have great, great difficulty with the use of pesticides,” Owsley said.
According to the Forest Service, up to 2,694 acres at Snowmass will be treated, along with 845 acres at Aspen Highlands, 403 acres at Buttermilk and 185 acres at Aspen Mountain. That doesn’t mean all trees within that combined acreage will be treated, but that there will be treatment within areas of that size.
Most of the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest, however, will not see any management effort in response to the beetle epidemic, according to Fitzwilliams. Eighty-five percent of the forest is in roadless or wilderness areas where logging is not possible. In those areas, selective tree cutting along trails, to protect the public, is all that would be done.
Where action is taken, collaboration with private interests is a reality, Fitzwilliams said. The Forest Service does not have the resources to fund the efforts.
“If we don’t have collaboration, it won’t get done,” he said.
County Commissioner Rachel Richards, too, predicted an increasing need for the Forest Service to rely on private-sector partnerships to accomplish its goals. What’s important is that the beetle work make sense within the overall management of the forest, she said.
“I don’t personally see it as a dark shadow, that the ski company is trying to be proactive and take care of this property,” Richards said.
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Grace Wesseling is an animal lover, a cheerleader of seven years and another soon-to-be graduate of Bridges High School, class of 2021.