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Governor coming to Vail

Cliff Thompson

While his exact itinerary has yet to be determined, the governor will be visiting with members of the state Forest Advisory Committee, who along with local, state and federal land managers will be touring local pine beetle-infested lodgepole pine stands in and around Vail that have been thinned to reduce fuelwood for a potential fire.

The ad hoc committee consists of state department heads and forest product representatives who make an annual assessment and report to the

Republican governor on the state of the state’s forests. Vail’s cooperative and fledgling effort to lessen wildland fire danger near inhabited areas is exemplary of that happening across the state and country. It involves many of the stakeholders with ties to the forest.

“We’re expecting an especially active fire season this year,” said Karl Mendonca, assistant timber management assistant for the Holy Cross Ranger District of the White River National Forest. “This will give the governor and others an opportunity to see some of the projects we’re taking on in a collaborative effort to mitigate the possible effects for mountain communities.”

The governor is expected to arrive by bus at mid-morning Tuesday and depart at day’s end. The meeting time and place has yet to be announce, although Owens is expected to tour Vail and East Vail.

Fire danger this year has been heightened by precipitation that is approximately half of normal. In Vail, for example, the combined effort of Vail Resorts, the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado State Forest Service and the town of Vail last year thinned pine-beetle killed trees in and around the Glen Lyon area at the base of Vail Mountain.

This attention to areas where the mountains and human settlement meet, known as the wild/urban interface, or WUI, is receiving quite a bit of attention lately from land managers, who want to avoid damage to human structures if a wildfire ignites.

National money

Fueling some of the local effort is a share of the more than $5 billion appropriated by Congress in 2001 as the National Fire Plan.

The Colorado Forest Advisory Committee was formed in 2001 by the state Legislature to assess forest health after fires all over the country that year blacked more than 11,000 square miles.

The concept of forest health as a management practice is a relatively new concept. Forest managers work to manage forests so they maintain diversity of vegetation to remain healthy and less prone to fires or insect attacks. What they want to avoid is a buildup of fuelwood that could feed a massive, wind-driven fire. Under similar drought conditions, as exist locally, a lightning-caused fire swept through Yellowstone National Park in 1990, taking out huge sections of the park’s lodgepole stands.

But how the fire season progresses will largely be controlled by the amount of rain that falls this summer. Extended forecasts from the National Weather Service are calling for near-normal precipitation, with the possibility that a strengthening El Nino in the Pacific could increase rainfall here.

Bugs

Adding to the fire danger is an epidemic of pine beetles that are killing millions of lodgepole pines across the West. In the 2.3 million acre White River National Forest, which spans Eagle, Summit, parts of Pitkin, Garfield and Grand Counties, an estimated 35,000 acres of forest are infested with the beetles.

The key to forest health, ironically, is the very thing forest managers and public safety officers fear most – fire. Pine beetles kill trees, and those dead trees in turn fuel fires. The beetles are a symptom of an unhealthy forest, say forestry experts, not a cause. Fire changes the make up of the forest.

“We’re living in a fire-shaped ecosystem,” said Forest Service entomologist Roy Mask. “Fire follows in the tracks of pine beetles.

Land managers acknowledge it’s not a question of if a fire will occur, but when.

“All it will take is a real windy day and a spark in the wrong place,” Mask said. Vail isn’t alone, either, he said. Much of the West and many portions of the country are facing similar fire danger. Parts or all of 33 states are experiencing drought conditions. The Front Range, for example, already has seen two significant fires this month alone.

Hand of man

Prior to modern man’s management of public lands, fire would periodically sweep through forests, rejuvenating them by removing overmature trees and stimulating new growth. The forests and other public lands have been negatively impacted by fire suppressions that have allowed vegetation to become old and fire-prone by creating trees that are all of one age group, making them less resistant to environmental factors, such as fire or insect attack.

Land managers now use low-intensity, controlled fires to sweep forested lands of fuelwood, as well as mechanical thinning with chainsaws.

In Eagle County, lodgepole stands last saw a major fire in the mid-1880s, according to cross sections of standing lodgepoles.

Mask said there are 7,800 acres of dead trees in the Vail Valley portion of the forest. On a good-to-bad, 1-to-10 scale, the fire danger of valley’s forests is at “7,” said Mask.

“The whole idea is being aware of the forest condition and showing what we’re doing to address them,” said Mask of the governor’s tour.

Expensive proposition

Holy Cross District Ranger Cal Wettstein said the area that can be more intensively managed for the greatest good is the wild/urban area. But it’s an expensive proposition. A consortium of organizations last summer, and the summer before, felled trees killed by beetles on a 16-acre area and another 50-acre area on Vail Mountain. Crews stripped the bark on felled trees to kill the beetle larvae. Those efforts and others by the Forest Service elsewhere cost an estimated $675,000, Wettstein said.

To “treat” the entire forest would be cost-prohibitive. The governor and members of the committee will likely be buttonholed by land managers and others for more funding for forest health and fire safety. The Forest Committee’s visit will be used in part to help it generate its annual report on forest health. The Vail visit and meeting will be the third gathering of the committee.

Another part of the battle is regulatory. Eagle County and other counties in the region will be adopting or considering regulations for new subdivisions aimed at reducing fire danger by creating defensible perimeters between dwellings and the forest. But those regulations don’t address the thousands of existing dwellings that back up to forested lands throughout the county.

Members of the Advisory Committee include Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone; Colorado State Forester Jim Hubbard; Greg Walcher, director of the state Division of Natural Resources; State Commissioner of Agriculture Don Ament; Nancy Fishering of the Colorado Timber Industry; Tom Borden, retired Colorado state forester; and Al Dyer, dean of the Colorado State University College of Forestry.

Also attending will be members of the state House and Senate committees on agriculture, as well as local, state and federal land managers and elected officials.


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