Logging under way on Basalt Mountain | VailDaily.com

Logging under way on Basalt Mountain

Scott Condon

The first of two major projects designed to reduce the wildfire risks on Basalt Mountain is under way.

A contractor will be using a machine that’s been described as a “lawn mower for trees” to clear about 100 acres on a lower slope of Basalt Mountain, just above the Aspen Junction subdivision. The property is located within the Basalt State Wildlife Area.

The project is a cooperative effort between the Colorado State Forest Service and Colorado Division of Wildlife. The state forest service wants to reduce the wildfire risk in the area where the public lands and homes abut. The wildlife division wants to improve habitat for animals by thinning the dense canopy of trees and letting other natural vegetation grow.

The hillside is covered with pinon and juniper trees. The wildlife division intends to remove nearly all the trees, leaving just five living trees per acre, according to a project description. Standing dead trees will also remain.

John Denison, district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service in Grand Junction, said he hopes to scale back the level of tree cutting.

“We’re trying to leave more trees than the Division of Wildlife wanted,” said Denison. The state forest service is supervising the contractor and marking the trees to be cut.

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Denison previously explained that the key to thinning the relatively old forest of pinon and juniper trees is to prevent the canopy of the trees from touching. Creating the separation makes it harder for wildfires to spread.

Residents of Aspen Junction and other neighboring subdivisions have criticized the project because it will denude a section of public land where they hike. The 100 acres is also highly visible from the neighborhood, although the cut area shouldn’t be visible from the valley floor.

Denison said the contractor will use a piece of machinery called a hydroax. It pulverizes the trees and spits out “firewood-size chunks for 300 feet,” he said. The mulch created from the grinding will be left on the forest floor.

Denison said the project is starting now so the work on the trees doesn’t attract Ips beetles. They have infested stands of pinon in western Colorado in recent years and are a threat in the Roaring Fork Valley. They are dormant during the winter.

Running the heavy machinery over the forest floor will also do less damage while the ground is frozen, Denison said.

The work will likely be completed by the end of this week.

Meanwhile, planning for a prescribed burn on 2,800 to 5,335 acres in a different section of Basalt Mountain is also nearing completion.

Frankie Romero, a fire chief with the federal Upper Colorado Fire Management Unit, said all federally mandated studies should be completed this winter.

Fire crews will set fires in spring 2004 when conditions are favorable to reduce the threat of wildfire. The targeted area will likely be burned over a two- to five-year period, Romero said.

The prescribed burn will be set on Basalt Mountain’s midsection, a band between the 7,400- and 8,600-foot elevation, above El Jebel. It includes lands administered by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.

Both projects were planned before U.S. Congress passed the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, which eases the approval process for logging projects designed to reduce the wildfire threat.