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Vail logging project cut short

Cliff Thompson

That’s what the town of Vail learned when it initiated a logging operation near The Valley subdivision along Buffehr Creek Road to reduce fire danger and to help limit the spread of tree-killing pine beetles.

Public Works officials discovered how complicated a seemingly simple project can become.

The $55,000 logging contract was granted in June to Pine Marten Logging of Eagle to remove up to 2,400 trees. But the logging was stopped short of that because, in cutting trees on the steeper slopes above the subdivision, potential avalanche danger was created.



Larry Pardee, Vail’s point man on the project, said the logging was stopped when 1,400 of the 2,400 trees were cut on the 13-acre site.

In describing the situation, Art Mears, an engineer on the project, said trees stabilize the snow and shade it, keeping it more stable than an exposed slope.



“Additional cutting on these slopes, beyond what I observed on June 24, will increase the avalanche hazard and risk to residents,” Mears said.

That leaves dead trees standing that could fuel a wildfire.

The situation illustrates the difficulty in managing fire-dependant wildlands that are typically “managed” by Mother Nature, as well as managing the periodic wildfires that sweep through local forests every 100 to 200 years.



In Vail, for example, many homes are built in the woods, creating the potential for enormous property loss if a fire occurs.

“Whenever you’re altering the vegetation it’s interconnected to a whole bunch of resources,” said Holy Cross district ranger Cal Wettstein. “For that reason, we’re doing a environmental analysis.”

Landowner Paul Rondeau told town officials he was concerned about a potential avalanche.

“This is a planning issue,” Rondeau said. “I had an identical situation when I lived on Fairway Drive with avalanche danger and lodgepole pines. I had them sprayed (with carbaryl).”

Rondeau said a “Catch 22” exists in which leaving trees where they are poses a fire danger – but removing them poses the danger of avalanches.

The Forest Service is studying what to do with a 15,000-acre stretch of forest it manages between Vail Pass and Edwards that is laden with fuels from a decades-long policy of fire suppression. That study will determine whether to log it, burn or leave it alone.

Exacerbating the problem is a pine-beetle epidemic that has killed more than 35,000 acres of the White River National Forest.

“When we do a forest health project you have everything from soil concerns to slope stability and aesthetic concerns,” said the Forest Service’s Karl Mendonca.

The agency is in the midst of a comprehensive geological assessment for the study area, he said.

The fire danger this year is significant because much of the West is in the grip of the worst drought since 1579, experts say, allowing small fires to grow quickly. A fire near El Jebel in southwest Eagle County started by sparks from a construction site, for example, grew to 1,500 acres in two hours, consuming three structures.

That scenario could happen in the Vail Valley, fire experts say.

The project in Vail’s The Valley subdivision will be completed later this month.


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