Forest Service finalizing plans to tackle wildfire fuels reduction along Steamboat’s wildland interface
Steamboat Springs — The U.S. Forest Service is moving closer to a final decision on the Steamboat Front Hazard Fuel Reduction Project, which is intended to attack wildfire hazard by reducing forest fuels — especially beetle-killed pine — from approximately 5,900 acres along the expanding wildland urban interface east of Steamboat Springs.
The area to be treated stretches from just south of U.S. Highway 40 on Rabbit Ears Pass, north up the Park Range beyond Steamboat Ski Area, to the eastern side of Strawberry Park and on to areas in the general vicinity of Elk Park and Mad Creek. The work is likely to involve combinations of salvage logging, prescribed burns and strategic removal of wild shrubs that would both mitigate fire hazard and danger to fire fighters, while also benefiting wildlife.
In addition to fuels reduction, a major component of the plan involves cutting back mature mountain shrubs in a patchwork fashion to improve forage for deer and elk. As well, current voluntary seasonal closures on almost 11,800 acres of critical elk winter range will be made mandatory in the winter of 2015-16, Medicine Bow Routt National Forest Acting Public Affairs Officer Aaron Voos said Tuesday.
Hahn’s Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District Ranger Chad Stewart is the responsible Forest Service officer on the Steamboat Front project. In January, he pointed out that as the wildland urban interface in the vicinity of Steamboat Springs has heightened the potential impacts of wildfire on people and private property, it also has expanded human impact on wildlife.
“For the habitat actions to benefit elk and deer, these animals must be secure in these areas during the winter and protected from human disturbance,” Stewart wrote in his Notice of Proposed Action last month.
He added that increased human use in traditional deer and elk winter range areas has resulted in elk abandoning their winter range and congregating with livestock on the valley floor where they damage haystacks and create safety issues while crossing highways.
Fuels reduction on the Steamboat Front will take several forms including one called “mastication.” It involves using a tracked or wheeled piece of machinery fitted with either a shredding or mowing head to remove mountain shrub vegetation, including gambel oak. In some cases small aspens of less than 3 inches in diameter will be targeted when they are in poor health.
Mastication of shrubs would be done in a mosaic pattern treating about 50 percent of the mountain shrubs within a given treatment unit, according to the notice of proposed action.
Lodgepole pine fuel reduction would be carried out in stands of trees dominated by dead lodgepole. The work could include salvage harvest of the trees as well as cutting, piling and burning or just cutting and felling. Access to lodgepole fuel reduction units may require temporary road building or excavated skid trails.
The public comment period for the Steamboat Front project began in September 2013, Voos said, and has since ended. The Forest Service had published a legal notice Feb. 8 announcing the completion of an environmental assessment, Stewart’s finding of “no significant impact,” implying that his agency had not found any extreme effects of the fuels reduction treatments that could not be mitigated, along with a draft decision notice.
Voos said that notice has been pulled back to allow for more time to study some of the provisions for fuels reduction in roadless areas. However, Voos added that Stewart told him this week that he still anticipates issuing his final decision this spring.
The legal notice will be refiled, allowing 45 days for objections, only from individuals and organizations who have previously made formal comments on the Steamboat Front project. No new comments from people who aren’t already on record will be accepted, Voos said.
Voos said it’s too early to say if any fuel reduction work will take place in 2015.
“We can’t put our finger on whether any other portions of this (project) will be implemented this year, but we’ll get the wheels in motion,” he said.
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