Brush to be cleared to prevent fires | VailDaily.com

Brush to be cleared to prevent fires

Cliff Thompson
Vail Daily/Shane MacomberBrushy hillsides like this land outside Minturn benefit from periodic fires.
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EAGLE COUNTY – When U.S. Forest Service Wildlife Biologist Joe Doerr traveled the Coffee Pot road north of Dotsero last spring, he kept waiting for the oak brush there to green up.To his surprise, much of it never did, and to Doerr and other habitat experts, that was a sign of a troubled shrubland ecosystem.The answer to the problem was something Mother Nature uses but man has been slow to employ: fire.The U.S. Forest Service wants to burn and cut 13,000 acres of oak and other brush on the White River National Forest over the next five years, including an area near the Coffee Pot Road in western Eagle County. That work could begin this spring.”We are having a die back of oak brush and other species because of the drought,” Doerr said. “We didn’t see this die back in the oak brush that was burned over the last seven years … Those plants seem to be doing well.”Oak brush produce acorns that are a valuable food source for many animals, including bears, which depend the nuts to fatten themselves for winter hibernation.There are five disparate areas, called “burn blocks,” ranging from the largest on Hardscrabble Mountain south of Eagle to the smallest at the Sweetwater area north of Dotsero. The three others are Suicide Mountain south of Gypsum, French Creek in Garfield County in Glenwood Canyon north of Interstate 70, and the Red Dirt area of northwestern Eagle County.

For the big gameThe burning and cutting will improve life for big game and make forests more fire-resistant by stimulating growth of new trees and plants, according to the Forest Service. Successful “burns” remove 50 percent of the old brush and stimulate sprouting of new growth, Doerr said.”There are areas within the project area where mountain brush is encroaching on aspen and where aspen is in decline,” said Cal Wettstein, district forest ranger. “It needs fire right now because it’s a fire-dependent ecosystem. They need to be rejuvenated.”By cutting and burning, it will be possible to mimic natural wildfires, said Wettstein. Over the last 100 years, forests and their fire-dependent vegetation have become overgrown because man has extinguished fires. Those old trees and thick brush could fuel a catastrophic wildfire if conditions are right, Wettstein said.With new growth, any wildfire would have less fuel and would not burn as hot or rapidly as flames burn in older forests. “It is desirable to bring these mountain shrub communities back into their historic condition and to reduce the susceptibility of the area to future large wildland fires,” Wettstein said.The cutting and burning will also keep the brushy ecosystems intact, Doerr said.

“Without fire we’re getting juniper encroachment in sagebrush and mixed shrublands,” he said. “The thought is that over time you’ll convert this shrubland to woodland. It’s occurring all over the West.”The burning also may have a benefit to private landowners, Doerr said. It could keep the habitat that elk and deer depend on healthier and keep the animals from damaging private lands. A few questionsThe Forest Service over the next few summers also will be cutting and burning 5,200 acres in patches from East Vail to Edwards, astride the heavily settled Interstate 70 corridor to reduce fire danger and improve forest health.Some of the considerations the Forest Service will be making before the cutting and burning begins are: How the projects affect threatened or endangered species and air quality; whether unstable soils on slopes will be disturbed; if burns will prevent he spread of noxious weeds; and if grazing animals will interfere.==========================================Friendly fire• The U.S. Forest Service wants to burn 13,000 acres of shrubland.

• The burning will take place over five years mostly in western Eagle County.==========================================Public commentForest Service regulations require the agency to solicit public comment on its proposed actions. If you have a comment on these projects, respond in writing to the U.S. Forest Service, P.O Box 620, Silverthorne, Colo. 80498. For more information, call Peech Keller at 468-5400 or Phil Bowden 328-638==========================================Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or cthompson@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado