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A cut above the rest

Tom Boyd

The view north from Eagle’s Nest atop Vail Mountain is legendary, but there are a few scars which mar the otherwise flawless vista. A clear-cut logging operation in the 1980s left large, circular patches in the forest near the Piney River, cross-valley from Eagle’s Nest, and the clear-cut stands are still clearly visible.By all accounts, clear-cutting a forest is an aesthetic downgrade, but there are biological consequences as well. The soil, deprived of the rich, decomposing matter which normally replenishes its nutrients, becomes virtually barren. Vegetation grows thin, leaving little shelter or food for wildlife. So the area within a clear-cut isn’t just stripped of its trees it’s stripped of most of what is biologically valuable.The logging operations of past decades left as clear a mark on local sentiment as they did on the forest. Vail residents interviewed for this story, who lived in town during the last timber sale, referred to it as, “a mistake,” and, “an obsolete idea.”But timber interests are knocking on the door again. The Forest Service recently proposed more timber sales for the area which would harvest trees on approximately 1730-2120 acres on Forest Service lands. About 1 million board feet of timber would be removed, most of it lodgepole, during a series of connected timber sales. The operation is expected to last 10 years.Echoes of former timber sales may have locals wary, but Forest Service officials stress the fact that this sale, as opposed to the last, will not be a clear-cut operation.The official Forest Service proposal (available at http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/whiteriver/projects/) states the intention, “To harvest timber using shelterwood, thinning, and uneven-aged methods.”The techniques proposed for Piney can be significantly different from clear cutting but only if performed correctly. Shelterwood cutting and thinning leaves a certain percentage of trees alive and standing within each tree stand. As few as 30 percent of trees in any particular stand would be harvested, and the remainder would drop their cones to create the next generation of trees. The result, say Forest Service officials, is a healthier, more diverse forest.”The (timber industry) doesn’t get carte blanche,” said Forest Service district ranger Cal Wettstein, who will ultimately make a recommendation on the project to new White River National Forest Supervisor Maribeth Gustafson. “Every tree that’s going to get cut has to be designated by a Forest Service officer.”Under an “adaptive management approach,” as Wettstein called it, the Forest Service will designate different cutting techniques depending on changing circumstances. Wettstein said the Forest Service will be closely monitoring the cutting and making sure that forest health, not capitalistic gain, remains the foremost concern.Yet even with these methods in mind, the Forest Service has raised eyebrows among local advocates and officials who wonder if the Forest Service is equipped to stand up to logging interests the same who clear cut in the 1980s and make them treat the forest differently this time around.The public comment period on this issue is scheduled to end June 8, after which Forest Service officials will decide if, how, and when to proceed.Chasing beetles with chainsawsThe ongoing mountain pine beetle epidemic is well documented (see “Fire on the mountain” at vailtrail.com, April 8, 2004 edition). Red, dying trees are visible all over the White River National Forest, and forest ecologists in the Forest Service hold out little hope they can combat the current epidemic.But the beetle is still listed among the purposes of logging the area.”This action is needed to reduce the susceptibility of lodgepole pine stands to mountain pine beetle infestation and associated increase in hazardous fuels,” the Forest Service report indicates.But going after the pine beetle with a logging operation doesn’t make sense to Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop.”There’s absolutely nothing in the literature which supports that, once a beetle gets into an area, that you can log to get it out,” he said. “Chasing bugs with chainsaws is a futile and destructive effort.”Forest Service officials admit that there is little that would stop the current epidemic. Forest ecologists from all corners agree that a deep, early-winter broadcast freeze (like one which took place in the 1950s), or a large fire, are the only forces which could end the epidemic completely.But the current generation of forest guardians has to think far into the future, said Forest Service forest ecologist Keith Giezentanner. The trees in the Piney area are almost all older, thick trees, which Giezentanner said exacerbates the pine beetle epidemic.”What we’re looking at with these particular sales are long-term health,” he said. “Not so much anything for the next five or 10 years, but 100 years from now we need to have a different age class break.”The Mountain Pine Beetle prefers trees that are 12 inches in diameter or more. They burrow under the bark of a tree and create offspring, which then burst out of the tree, leaving splotches of tree sap on the outside the tree. The damage caused by the beetle’s lifecycle ultimately results in the death of the tree, which then turns red, dries up, and falls to the forest floor leaving perfect fuel for a wildfire. Since the mountain pine beetle prefers larger-trunk trees, it usually kills older, mature trees.Forest Service district ranger Cal Wettstein said there isn’t much hope that logging at Piney would eliminate the pine beetle, but he still believes the overall health of the forest and the animals which live there would be improved by thinning.”Those lodgepole pine stands are all mature or close to mature,” he noted. “Snowshoe hares like the regenerated lodgepole pine stands, stands that are 10-12 feet high. When there’s heavy snowpack they can hide out in there and feed on lower branches.”Forest Service wildlife biologist Liz Roberts said the snowshoe hare is the animal species that would most clearly benefit from a thinning operation. Among the animals which feed on snowshoe hare is the lynx, she said, “So it’s indirectly beneficial for the lynx.”Squirrels, pine martins, and other mammals, Roberts said, would probably do well with or without thinning.”Ultimately it encompasses so much of an ecosystem,” she said. “By doing this we’ll even improve the microhabitat, which ultimately increases diversity of animals and plants there’s a whole chain of events.”That chain of events would lower the amount of dead trees which would otherwise cover the forest floor. Fewer dead trees would reduce the risk of forest fires, said the Forest Service’s Cary Green, but that risk wouldn’t become too great in the Piney area, he said, until several decades into the future.”I would say this (project) has multiple purposes,” he said. “Number one is to remove dead and dying trees, and (the rest) is going toward forest health and forest diversity.”Two roads divergeOutside of the logging element of the plan, the most controversial issue is where the logging trucks would enter and exit the forest.Two alternatives have been proposed by the Forest Service, one of which would introduce timber-hauling trucks to Red Sandstone Road. Under Alternative 2, Red Sandstone Road, which runs from Red Sandstone Elementary School toward the Piney River Ranch, would be host to about six trucks per day during harvesting season (June-early October). The third alternative has logging trucks pulling their haul over Muddy Pass and out to Wolcott via Highway 131.The possible use of Red Sandstone Road for logging trucks has brought the ire of Vail Councilwoman Diana Donovan.”Red Sandstone Road is a major recreational access point,” she said. “Half a dozen big, noisy lumber trucks a day make the roads too dangerous for citizens to use.”If the logging operation does take place, other Vail officials are expected to come out strongly in favor of Alternative 3, which sends the trucks over Muddy Pass and out to I-70 via Wolcott.Another road issue is bound to nag conservationists: both alternatives call for construction of 10 15 miles of temporary roads.”That’s a concern, from an environmental standpoint, because (the Forest Service) doesn’t have the budget currently to take care of the roads that are already out there,” said Jonathan Staufer, a wilderness advocate and lifelong Vail resident. “There’s already a lot of illegal road use going on out there.”But Wettstein said the temporary roads would be obliterated and closed off effectively after loggers finish using them. Money from the timber sale, he said, would fund this effort.”We’re aware that (some people) have some real concerns about our ability to deal with those roads,” Wettstein said. “It’s something we’ve gotten really good at being able to do.”The roads would be in dark timber, he said, and therefore difficult to access and easier to obliterate and block off.Wettstein and the Forest Service have officially marked Alternative 2, which sends trucks through Red Sandstone, as the preferred alternative. The reason for this, he said, is that Red Sandstone is a shorter route, which would allow the Forest Service to bring in more money from the sale.More money, he said, means more funds toward monitoring the operation and obliterating roads.Wettstein agreed that the public needs to be aware of what’s happening and vocal about the project. That way, he said, he can inform his recommendation to the WRNF supervisor.Without public action soon, Staufer said, the people of the valley will have little say in the fate of the forest to the north.”Public involvement and public comments on this are the only thing that are going to keep our forests healthy,” he said. VTTom Boyd can be contacted at tboyd@vailtrail.com. Send copies of letters on the issue to tboyd@vailtrail.com, fax to (970) 748-6427, or send snail mail to The Vail Trail, P.O. Drawer 6200, Vail CO, 81658.The Forest Service is proposing a shelterwood, thinning, and uneven-aged timber cut in the Piney River area. The operation would take place on about 2,000 acres of National Forest and require 10 15 miles of new, temporary roads. One alternative of the plan calls for use by logging trucks of Red Sandstone Road, and the other calls for a logging route over Muddy Pass.The public comment period ends June 8.To comment: Call Cary Green at (970) 827-5160 or e-mail to: comments-rocky-mountain-white-river-holy-cross@fs.fed.us or send a letter to Cal Wettstein, District Ranger, Holy Cross Ranger District, P.O. Box 190, Minturn, CO 81645, or fax to (970) 827-9343.


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