Aspen management project for White River National Forest out for public comment
Proposal targets up to 2,000 acres a year of burning, timber harvesting to reinvigorate aspen stands, improve wildlife habitat and reduce community fire risk
The White River National Forest is asking for feedback by April 20 on a proposed management project that aims to use prescribed burning and tree harvesting to gradually breathe new life into aspen stands across much of the 2.3 million acre forest.
There are about 600,000 acres of aspen in the White River National Forest, the largest national forest in Colorado and most-visited national forest in the U.S. Roughly 375,000 acres would be eligible for treatment under the proposed aspen management project, all outside of designated wilderness areas.
“Aspen in general is declining on the White River National Forest for a variety of reasons,“ said Brett Crary, the national forest’s silviculturist. “This project is really designed to improve the condition of aspen and to get more aspen on the ground where it is being overtaken by other species.”
With their white trunks and golden fall foliage, aspen are one of Colorado’s most emblematic trees. Aspen grow as clones, with numerous trees making up one individual. The clone sprouts “suckers” from its roots, which grow into new trees to replenish the stand as trees grow older and die, though the trees can also spread by seed.
Aspen thrive after disturbances such as fire, landslides and avalanches and can support lush ground vegetation that provides rich wildlife habitat. They are known as a keystone species, with research finding aspen stands second only to riparian forest in supporting the greatest number of plant and animal species in the Intermountain West.
The proposed aspen management project notes that many aspen stands across White River National Forest — approximately one-third — have reached maturity, with a scarcity of younger stands.
At higher elevations and on north-facing slopes, many aspen stands have been overtaken by conifers, the project states. That is a natural forest succession process, but one the proposed project states is likely being exacerbated by the suppression of wildfires that would otherwise clear out the more fire-prone conifers, trigger aspen stand regeneration or make way for new stands to establish.
“On the White River National Forest, large-scale stand replacing disturbance has been documented in the 1800s,” the management project states. “Since that time, seral stands have transitioned from aspen dominated to conifer dominated. It is likely that fire suppression over the past few decades has prevented some mixed conifer forests from being re-initiated as aspen.”
Compounding the effects of aspen mortality from drought, insects and disease at lower elevations are high levels of browsing by elk, deer and livestock, the plan states. Heavy browsing of aspen suckers can prevent stands from regenerating over time.
“Historically, apex predators such as wolves would have pushed elk across the landscape,” the management project states. “With the extirpation of wolves from Colorado, elk will often congregate in aspen clones and eat nearly all the new aspen suckers. Excessive browse by elk appears most prevalent in stable aspen growing in winter range, where elk are concentrated and minimize their movement to save energy.”
Rather than move forward with individual projects to treat aspen stands, as done in the past on White River National Forest, or identify exactly where work will be done, the aspen management plan instead aims to describe a condition across the landscape where treatments are desirable and could occur. The goal is to streamline lengthy planning and review processes and allow the national forest to more quickly respond to areas where aspen stands need management.
“This allows us to be responsive,” Crary said. “Say five years from now someone sees a declining aspen stand, this would allow us to go out and implement over a shorter time.”
Five comments on the proposed aspen management project had been submitted as of Friday. Conservation groups such as Wilderness Workshop, in Carbondale, said they also plan to provide comments.
“Wilderness Workshop is reviewing the proposed Aspen Management Project from the White River National Forest and will submit comments following additional analysis; the current ’decision-first, evaluation and identification-second’ approach is very concerning for a project that contemplates treatment on 375,000 acres of aspen habitat,” said Will Roush, the group’s executive director.
“The large-scale nature of this project, lack of end date and ’blank-check’ approach are also troubling. As part of a robust public process under (the National Environmental Protection Act) we believe it’s critical that the public understand where these treatments would occur so they can participate in an informed way,” Roush said.
Among the 375,000 acres of aspen that would be eligible for treatment, the proposed project targets treating up to 20,000 acres per decade on the national forest, which includes portions of of Eagle, Garfield, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Summit, Moffat, Routt, Mesa and Gunnison counties.
Half of that treatment would be achieved through prescribed burning, the project states. The other half would be achieved through coppice cutting, improvement cutting and weeding; essentially cutting and harvesting all or parts of aspen stands to force clones to sucker, or harvesting conifers from aspen stands, and working to ensure there is enough suckering to overwhelm any potential browsing by elk, deer or livestock.
In selecting areas on the national forest for possible treatment, the aspen management project states priorities will be placed on:
- Maintaining aspen and converting conifer to aspen, which are less conducive to fire, in areas adjacent to communities at a high-risk of wildfire;
- Harvesting or burning aspen stands to increase the spatial extent of aspen across the landscape;
- Improving wintering range for elk and mule deer;
- Regenerating persistent aspen stands that currently lack natural recruitment;
- And maintaining aspen in areas with high recreation use, such as along scenic byways and travel corridors.
Future project sites could target one or more of those goals, the management project states. It also states that existing roads would be used as much as possible, that any new temporary roads built to access aspen stands would be decommissioned after harvesting and hauling activities are completed, and that no roads would be developed in Colorado Roadless Areas.
“What we want to do is be strategic about where we do management,“ Crary said. ”Rather than trying to identify those places over such a huge area, we’re trying to create flexibility so we can respond to different areas that need treatment, where we’re seeing a decline, or adjacent to a community at risk of wildfire.“
Looking forward, with the climate projected to warm and dry, it’s difficult to predict exactly how aspen, which grows in a wide range of environmental conditions, will fare on the national forest in decades to come.
“Research has shown that younger stands can be more resistant. If we get a drought and the stand is under 80 years old, it’s less susceptible. So ideally we would have a patchwork of age classes, where right now pretty much everything is old,” Crary said.
Forest Service officials have been working to develop the aspen management project for White River National Forest for several years. If the management project is approved, work could start as early as next summer, Crary said.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.