Vail Valley "red zone’ targeted
She cleared trees and brush from her property in this “red zone” where forest and homes rub elbows. But when it came to clearing some trees from the U.S. Forest Service land just feet from her home, it stopped being easy.
Cutting healthy trees on public land requires a National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA review, that can take six months to two years to complete.
With forests ripe for fire and many calling for rapid action, the Forest Service’s own regulations are slowing the process of preparing for wildfires.
The issue has even reached the president and has trickled back down to Eagle County. There may be some relief for Keller, a Forest Service employee, and for the hundreds of Eagle County homeowners with homes in the red zone.
In the wake of last summer’s unprecedented and costly fire season, there’s a national initiative to streamline the process of creating defensible perimeters for homes in the red zone. Defensible perimeters generally require cutting trees and brush and removing dead wood that could fuel a fire. But where private and public lands meet, it’s a procedural choke-point.
“We are doing everything we can both regionally and nationally to streamline the process,” said Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Rick Cables. “We’ve got to get real about how much analysis is necessary.”
Cables said NEPA is a good law.
“It requires you to engage the public, describe the action, disclose the alternatives and make a decision. It’s that simple,” he said.
While conceptually the NEPA process may be simple, working through it requires the patience of a bureaucrat.
It can take 12 to 18 months or even longer for some NEPA decisions.
President Bush has directed Ann Veneman, the secretary of agriculture, and Interior Secretary Gale Norton to develop effectively and timely procedures to reduce fuel buildup in nationally administered lands.
The move has raised some eyes in the environmental community which fears it may open the door to timber clear-cutting.
Public lands across the country- many of which consist of fire-dependant ecosystems – are choked with fuelwood from a 100-year-old policy of fire suppression. That has created an unbalanced forest environment that invites catastrophic wildfires. Before man’s fire suppression, naturally occurring and low-intensity wildfires would periodically sweep through forests, removing excess fuelwood and stimulating new growth and rejuvenating ecosystems.
Lots of acres
Last summer’s drought-driven wildfires that destroyed a record 500,000 acres in Colorado and 7.1 million acres nationally. That’s nearly double the national average. Colorado’s 137,000-acre Hayman Fire southwest of Denver destroyed several hundred buildings and was the largest fire in Colorado’s history. It “blew up” two days after it started and burned an astonishing 47 square miles in a day.
Many fire experts say the intensity of the burn was a combination of both the fuel that have built up and the unprecedented drought that the region continues to experience.
Cables said fire suppression this year chewed up his agency’s budget.
“We had a horrific fire season and not enough fire suppression money,”
he said, noting that funds were extracted from other parts of the budget.
The expense of firefighting and forest thinning makes the choices difficult. The cost of thinning and prescribed or controlled fires can range as high as $2,900 per acre by some estimates.
In Eagle County and elsewhere across the region, rather than implementing a cost-prohibitive forest-wide fuel reduction program, the Forest Service has decided to concentrate its “fuel treatment” efforts on the red zones, where the greatest risk to private property lies. It has partnered with the Colorado State Forest Service and local governments.
Statewide there are nearly 6 million acres of red zone occupied by 1 million people. Removing fuelwood isn’t cheap, said the Colorado State Forest Service’s Mike Harvey. He estimates it can cost $1,500 to $2,000 or more to create a defensible perimeter for the average home.
In eastern Eagle County, the Vail Valley Forest Health Plan proposed thinning and fuels reduction on 68,000 acres of land that shoulder Interstate 70 from Vail Pass to Edwards. The red zone portion of that, where houses and forest mingle, amounts to approximately 1,100 acres, said Wettstein.
Woodsman, cut that tree
Finding the people to thin forests is also a problem said Harvey.
“So many of the traditional loggers are gone because there’s no market for timber,” he said. “In some places a service industry has developed that instead of paying landowners for wood, they charge for fuel reduction.
The unhealthy state of the forest also encourages pine beetle infestation, and that creates additional dead trees and more fuel for wildfire. Nearly 35,000 acres of trees across Eagle County have been killed by pine beetles. In the Vail Valley area, nearly 4,800 acres of lodgepole pines are infested or candidates for infestation.
In Eagle County, the Forest Service wants to make it simpler and easier.
“We’re looking at a categorical exclusion (from full-blown NEPA analysis) for properties in the red zone that will make the process a lot more timely,” said Holy Cross District Ranger Cal Wettstein. “We’re talking about a very narrow, site-specific area around people’s homes.”
He said the proposal would reduce the review from many months to just a few, but Wettstein acknowledged there is a lot of work yet to be done.
Defend your home
For Keller, an interdisciplinary team leader for fuels planning on the White River National Forest who is also working on the forest health project, the key to the success of fuel reduction in the red zone is for private homeowners to take the initiative and begin reducing fuelwood on their property.
“We want to see people doing mitigation on their side of the fence before we do it ourselves on our side,” she said. “People are anxious and they want to do the right thing. We need to give them the opportunity to do that without this huge amount of paperwork.’
That’s a step in the right direction, said Rich Homann, fire division supervisor for the Colorado Forest Service. His organization does not manage land, but instead coordinates management activities between individuals and public agencies.
“It feels to me like the Forest Service is trying to do something for the local residents,” he said. “I think local residents need to take advantage of this and show some support.”
The Forest Service itself won’t be cutting trees, but will depend on private contractors and a cooperative good neighbor agreement with the Colorado Forest Service to accomplish that.
“With the good neighbor agreement, we are not actually doing anything on our side of the property line,” Keller said. “The state forest service will work with landowners to come up with a plan of what to do.”
“There are people out there who have already done projects on their side and they’re looking at us,” she aid. “As a good neighbor we need to show them we’re doing as much as we can as quickly as we can to match their efforts.”
That the Forest Service has been hamstrung by its own regulations is pretty readily recognized by all. There’s a standing joke that before someone in a Forest service uniform can relieve himself, forms must be completed in triplicate.
“What we’ve seen is because NEPA is not completed on the Forest Service side, nothing gets done,” said the state forest service’s Harvey. “I think it’s a good idea if they try and streamline the process and still cover the bases that need to be covered.”
Cooperative efforts are already in place among the public land agencies, Vail Resorts and the town of Vail to deal with the twin issues of pine beetles and the attendant fire danger. Last summer trees were thinned in the Valley in Vail and also in the Glen Lyon area. But even the seemingly simple process of thinning trees can create issues. Work in the Valley was halted because there were fears the thinning would increase the avalanche danger.
“I commend the Forest Service for looking into a way for getting some accomplishment down to the ground while staying within the bounds of NEPA,” Homann said.
How long will it take to thin and controlled burn forests to bring them into some semblance of health?
“To treat 6 million acres with the resources we have now is not something we’ll see done in the next 100 years,” he said. “You do have to start someplace.”
Eagle County dodged a major fire last summer. Most of the 40 fire starts were quickly snuffed, and the largest was an 1,100-acre fire near El Jebel in southwest Eagle County.
Public land managers like Mike Harvey hope last summer’s dire circumstances won’t soon be forgotten, but he’s also a realist.
“Hopefully, we’ll learn something from this past summer and remember some of the lessons,” he said. “People tend to have short memories.”