Cost complicates Vail forest thinning | VailDaily.com

Cost complicates Vail forest thinning

VAIL — While the pine beetle infestation that killed countless trees around Vail has largely run its course, the damage remains, and that damage could be catastrophically dangerous.

Dead timber is still standing and is leaning against live trees throughout the forests around Vail, particularly on the south side of Interstate 70. And yes, that sounds like the way you'd arrange kindling to make a large campfire — just the formula to create a fast-running crown fire that sprints across the forest canopy.

That kind of fire is dangerous enough in the backcountry. It's potentially devastating in places where the valley floor is filled with people. That's why the town of Vail and the U.S. Forest Service have done a good bit of timber removal in the past and are planning more in coming years, starting perhaps as early as 2016.

The Forest Service now is putting the finishing touches on the environmental assessments and other paperwork required for a cleanup project on about 190 acres near Vail's Intermountain neighborhood.

The project, with the obvious name, Vail Intermountain Project, is currently working its way through the official environmental assessment process, which could be done by the end of this year. A comment and objection period will follow in early 2016, and work could start by spring or early summer.

FUNDING THE PROJECT

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While the Forest Service is handling the planning and bureaucratic approvals, much, if not most, of the funding will come from the town.

Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler said the town hasn't yet appropriated any money for the project, but it will as soon as details are final.

The plan at the moment calls for using a combination of techniques. Individual trees could be taken out of some spots, while other areas will be cleared entirely. Holy Cross District Ranger Dave Neely said the intent of the project is to change the vegetation in parts of the forest.

In some cases, that means thinning out lodgepole pines. Other areas would encourage more aspen growth, since those trees aren't as susceptible to crown fires as lodgepoles. Still other areas would be left looking more like meadows.

BY LAND OR BY AIR?

The question is how to do that work.

Using helicopters to remove entire trees is effective but expensive. The Forest Service estimates it could cost as much as $2.6 million for an all-aircraft project.

Hand-cutting is far less expensive — about $250,000 for the entire project. But ground crews would have to pile up — and probably burn — thinned timber.

The Forest Service estimates that helicopter thinning would take between two and five seasons, depending on weather, aircraft availability and, of course, funding.

Hand work would take one summer to cut and pile timber, but burning dozens of piles — a winter job — could take as long as five seasons.

The Vail Town Council got a look at the project during its Oct. 20 afternoon work session. Council member Dale Bugby said it's essential that people in the neighborhood understand the project.

Fellow council member Dave Chapin said he's concerned about the timing of the project, particularly if it involves burning a lot of timber piles.

While town and Forest Service officials are still talking about how to proceed, the most likely result will be some sort of combination of hand and helicopter work, depending on logistics and budget.

While nothing is final, Zemler said current Town Council members favor an approach that takes two or three seasons, spreading out the costs and effects on residents.

On the other hand, the town council that makes the final decision will have at least three new members, so priorities may change.

While Neely said he understands the eyebrow-raising cost of using aircraft, he said those methods are essential in places.

"There are areas where it makes a lot more sense to have helicopters move the timber," Neely said. "It's a lot better than having helicopters dropping water during a fire."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

Five facts

The idea: Forest work to reduce wildfire risk in Vail.

Where: The south side of Interstate 70, roughly above the Intermountain neighborhood.

Project area: Roughly 190 acres.

Cost estimates: Up to $2.6 million for helicopter-only work; $250,000 for on-the-ground work.

Possible start: 2016