Clear-cut case

Ward residents balk at fire mitigation efforts


Maybe the homemade sign on the Peak to Peak Highway, painted in road-cone orange on plywood says it all: “U.S. Forest dis-Service. Locals say: Stop logging.”

It’s not the first comment the Forest Service has received from locals in the Ward area, nor is it likely the harshest.

Residents in the Ward area have been involved in the process for the fire mitigation programs currently underway since planning started back in 2003. As the project approaches half completion, they’re starting to complain that this isn’t the treatment they were told their forests would get. This isn’t fire mitigation, they say, this is clear-cutting.

“The word I use is ‘carnage,’” says Justine Sanchez, who has lived in the area for 10 years. “It’s huge swaths. It’s clear cuts.”

Residents point to other areas near Ward where the fire mitigation looks less destructive. The fire mitigation near Gold Hill has thinned out the pine forest, cut the lower branches and small trees called “ladder fuels.”

“It looks like a swept forest. It looks really nice,” Sanchez says. “I support fire mitigation, I understand it’s important. I don’t understand why they have to clear cut.”

When the James Creek Fuel Reduction Project planning started in 2003, the fire to fight was the Overland Fire, a crown fire that burned 3,500 acres (more than half the acreage in the Fourmile Canyon Fire last fall) and destroyed 12 homes in a single day. Crown fires burn through the canopy of the forest and typically depend on ladder fuels to ignite.

The planning team included wildlife and fish specialists, botanists and natural resource specialists — and the public.

“We had a lot of public involvement,” says Mark Martin, who was the Forest Service team leader for the development of the James Creek Fuel Reduction Project. “A lot of people in Boulder County are very interested in what’s happening in the forest.”

Responses and the advice given were all over the board, he says.

“Our overall goal was to reduce the possibility of crown fire,” Martin says.

Wind carries the fire, and so prevention requires creating gaps in the canopy. Those gaps come either through traditional techniques, like clear cuts or patch cuts, or by thinning from below. Typically, a 25- to 40-foot break in the trees provides an effective gap, Martin says.

Hillsides near Ward host a blend of trees — lodgepole, ponderosa and aspen stands, according to Martin.

Each needs a different system for fire mitigation. From one slope to the next, the advised method and available implementation — whether you can even get a bulldozer there — varies.

“We have a variety of treatments,” says Kevin Zimlinghaus, implementation silviculuturist for the James Creek Fuel Reduction Project. “In our ponderosa pine stands or our mixed stands, [we] try to enhance or maintain a diverse structure of trees, [and] like to have a combination of small, large and medium trees.”

That’s why one hillside looks like it’s been tidied up a bit, and another looks like, as one resident describes, someone’s building ski runs there. Some of the prescribed treatments do call for patch cuts, a clear-cut of five acres or smaller.

“In the area where we have our lodgepole pine stands, the best treatment to have for those would be patch cuts or clear-cuts,” Zimlinghaus says. “Lodgepole pine is a tree species that likes to grow up together, die together and then burn up together. That’s just kind of how they work.”

They’re maintaining more small trees in the manual cut areas — less than five inches in diameter — because they anticipate those trees will be more resistant to pine beetle than large trees, he says.

“In James Creek back in the day in 2003 and 2004, we had some thinning prescriptions,” he says. “We’re finding that it’s kind of silly to go out and thin dead trees or dying trees.”

The methods they’re employing have been developed through modeling. No fire has yet tested them.

“I think that what was presented as to how the mitigation would happen is not what is happening in reality by the people who were hired out,” says a 40-year Ward resident who asked to remain anonymous. “This is not the way it was described to us. This is not what was planned.”

The anonymous resident attended the Forest Service planning meetings and read the paperwork, and says the work she’s seeing on Gold Lake Road doesn’t fit the mechanical or manual prescriptions described at those meetings.

“There are some good people at the Forest Service who are really trying to pay attention, but I don’t think they’ve really paid attention here. Maybe they would come up and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s exactly what we expected,’ but it’s not what we expected,” the resident says. “It’s not at all what we were expecting.”

These areas look different than other fire breaks, she says, adding that it looks like the Northwest. Coincidentally, some of the crews hired are from the Northwest.

The Forest Service has hired a single contractor with a 10-year contract that they’re not yet halfway through, according to Zimlinghaus. That contractor subcontracts labor and has hired crews from all over the West.

“We pay them. There is no value really in the wood,” he says. “If it were a full-blown timber sale, he’d be purchasing wood from us.”

The wood they remove is sent around the country to be converted to animal bedding or buck and rail fences. A few logs are sent to mills. Much of it is burned — though not in the wood burning stoves common in Ward homes.

“Our trees are so small here, and the wood really has no value,” he says.

Zimlinghaus says a Forest Service administrator visits the area to check on the project three or four times a week — typically the same administrator, though there’s an alternate who fills in.

Manual treatments cost $600 to $700 an acre, Zimlinghaus estimates, and mechanical treatments cost $1,000 to $1,200.

“I do support it. I do see that it’s needed, I’m not one of those that says ‘Oh just stop logging,’” says Gregg Burch, who finished a cabin on Gold Lake Road in 2002 and spends most of the year there. “I support it, but I also support it being done in an environmentally sensitive way.”

Burch bought his way out of a five-acre patch cut listed on the initial plan for some of the 40-plus acres he owns by saying he would either sue or spend that $20,000 to develop and implement a fire mitigation plan for those acres. The final plan from the Forest Service doesn’t include any patch cuts on his land, he says. But patch cuts are still basically in his backyard.

“I’ve been watching the work going on, and it just breaks my heart,” he says.

For a $3,000 fee from a forestry consultant, Burch purchased a 10-year plan for his property. The trees he’s taken out were hand-marked by that forestry consultant.

He says he’s spending 10 times per acre what the Forest Service estimates it spends.

“The prescription also says to leave a certain percentage, leave some of the wood in there,” Burch says. “But the ways in which they are done is just really unattractive because the ways in which it’s done is on the cheap.”

Zimlinghaus says there have been some complaints, but he attributes some of that to turnover in the community (none of the people quoted in this article moved in after 2003), and to it being easier to handle the idea of cutting down trees when they’re not in your backyard.

“A lot of people in Boulder County haven’t seen that equipment being used and … some of our local neighbors, I think they were unaware of what all was involved,” he says. “Yeah, we want to have fuel reductions, and we want to have these treatments, and once it’s in their backyard they get a little concerned.”

Once there’s a contractor in place, he says, there’s little they can do — except modifications for environmental changes like the mountain pine beetle.

“I totally understand the need for us to manage the forests, if you look at the history, how we’ve controlled fires so now there’s a lot of fuel and, you know, with the pine beetle and trees, there are many different factors and I accept that, but it’s a question of how it’s done. And I really don’t think it’s being done appropriately,” says the anonymous resident.

“We’re very lucky to have the beauty of the mountains here, and, yes, we need to preserve that, and, yes, we need to do some management here, but there needs to be some control,” the resident says.

“It’s our forest, you know. These national lands belong to the people, and so I think it’s important that we people are paying attention and doing what we can,” she says. “It’s our land. It’s our forest, and we live up here.”