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The Pagosa Ranger District has planned two upcoming projects that may be of public interest and Steve Hartvigsen, forest vegetation lead for the district, explained the projects in detail to The SUN.
The first is a Wolf Creek salvage sale. The sale would involve the removal of dead Engelmann spruce adjacent to the Wolf Creek road network. The area to be affected, up to 180 acres, is located west of the Continental Divide, south of U.S. 160, east of Fall Creek Road and north of Treasure Mountain and Treasure Pass. Trees to be removed will be designated by the Forest Service.
Removal operations will be carried out by contractors and permittees, including timber purchasers. The Forest Service will administer timber removal contracts, ensuring compliance with contract terms. Sale of timber will likely occur via multiple contracts and permits, rather than as one large sale. According to Hartvigsen, there seems to be enough demand from smaller buyers for the Forest Service to handle multiple, smaller sales.
During timber removal, permittees and contractors will be required to take special care to avoid damaging live trees, stream courses and alpine wetlands. A number of groundwater and runoff-fed high alpine wetlands called “fens” are present in the northwest part of the district. Protecting these peat wetlands is a priority of the district because of the important watershed benefits these areas provide, including reduction of flood risk, improvement of water quality, and provision of habitat for unique plant and animal communities.
Protection of habitat for the endangered lynx and its primary prey species, the snowshoe hare, is also a priority of the district and will be considered when contracts are written and issued. Smaller trees that rise up just above the snowpack in winter provide food and cover for hares. The salvage sale will benefit these species as the removal of fire fuels on the pass will reduce the likelihood of an intense wildfire breaking out. Wildfire events are hard on both species.
The key objectives of the salvage sale are to salvage beetle kill spruce, provide forest products to local users, and remove hazardous trees from forest roads that receive fairly heavy use. Dead spruce trees pose a safety threat along these roads as dead stems can stand for up to 50 years; if rot occurs inside standing case-hardened stems, the trees can fall, creating a hazard to motor vehicalists.
Additionally, the Forest Service wants to meet the public expectation that dead trees be utilized in order to bolster local economies and enhance resources with forest products.
In light of recent fires in the area, removal and sale of dead Engelmann spruce is a proactive fire management effort. Dead trees are dry and pose a severe fire hazard if not properly managed.
Spruce beetles have a longer life cycle than other bark beetles. As such, it look longer for a spruce die-off to occur after an attack resulting from an area drought in 2002 (stressed trees were more susceptible to infestation after this incident). Spruce beetles kill trees by girdling them; as beetle larvae emerge and eat outwards towards the bark, the galleries they create interfere with nutrient movement within the tree.
In addition, the larvae and beetles carry and transmit blue stain fungus to the trees. The fungus breaks down the chemical defenses of trees as it spreads through sap wood and eventually disables water movement from tree roots to crown, hastening the death of the tree. Although blue stain fungus is known to reduce the value of timber and timber products, the Forest Service did not mention this having an effect on the salvage sale — the fungus does not effect wood strength.
Most beetle attacks occur in mid summer and larger, older trees are targeted first.
The second project is thinning in the Deep Canyon area. This project will involve cutting, thinning and removal of smaller ponderosa pine and juniper trees in addition to mowing trees and Gamble oak. The treatment would occur on approximately 286 acres bounded on the east by Archuleta Creek Canyon, to the south by Southern Ute Tribal Land, and to the north and west by Colo. 151. An additional small unit is near the Lower Piedra campground, adjacent to Forest Road 621. Several proposed units are adjacent to private land in Cabezon Canyon occupied by residences and outbuildings.
The key objectives of this project are to reduce and rearrange fuel loads in order to reduce wildfire risk to the public, private property and firefighters. These objectives will be met by disrupting fuel connectivity, focusing on ladder fuels that allow fires to climb from the forest floor to the canopy and spread more rapidly. Reducing the fuel load in this area is important because it represents a wildland-urban interface. Larger, older ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees will be retained.
Additionally, the Forest Service aims to improve habitat and forage resources for wildlife in the canyon — many areas targeted for thinning serve as important winter range for deer and elk. The canyons also provide good habitat for the threatened Mexican Spotted Owl, which inhabits old growth forests in the western U.S. This will involve restoring ponderosa pine stands to historical densities; promoting healthier forest structure and composition will allow this part of the landscape to be more resilient to disturbance.
Steep slopes and a patchwork of private property make Deep Canyon a challenging a complicated area to manage. As such, the Forest Service needs to be strategic about where it operates and carries out thinning treatments, generally avoiding steeper slopes.
Aggressive thinning activities carried out as per the plan would likely have to be repeated in another 15 years, explained Hartvigsen. This is because, by thinning, the Forest Service is only doing part of a restoration treatment. Hartvigsen explained that because the forest in the Deep Canyon area is a fire adapted forest, prescribed burning on a 10-year cycle would be an ideal management regime although prescribed burning is not a part of the proposed project.
The public has 30 days to comment on these proposed projects. The comment period begins tomorrow, Nov 8, and will end Dec 9. Written comments can be submitted to District Ranger, P.O. Box 310, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147, or hand delivered to the Pagosa District office at 180 Pagosa St. during normal business hours (8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, excluding holidays). Comments can also be faxed to Attn: Sara Brinton at 264-1538. Electronic comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. The district office will also receive comments in person during normal business hours and over the phone at 264-2268.