Appeal sets back pine beetle plans
 

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This map shows treatment areas, numbered and in dark pink and orange, for the Vail Valley Forest Health Plan. In light pink are high-risk landslide areas. Forest-health plans for areas above Intermountain and Matterhorn have been put off because of landslide risk.
Special to the Daily
 

Edward Stoner
June 17, 2006


VAIL - An appeals decision from the Forest Service could delay a project meant to reduce fire danger above Intermountain for a year.

The U.S. Forest Service reversed part of the "Vail Valley Forest Health Project" earlier this month based on an appeal from a Minturn resident. The reversal focused on areas with high landslide potential. That affects this summer's plans to cut down apsens and other trees above Intermountain and Matterhorn in West Vail.

The plan, which covers areas from Vail to Arrowhead and would take five years, is intended to prevent future pine beetle outbreaks, make aspens forests healthier and reduce fire risk.

The work near Intermountain and Matterhorn could be delayed, said Cal Wettstein, district ranger for the White River National Forest.

"It could delay this summer to next summer," Wettstein said.

Aspen stands are natural "fuelbreaks" that can prevent the spread of wildfires, the Forest Service says.

Bill Carlson, director of environmental health for the town of Vail, said the project will "absolutely" reduce fire risk to Vail.

"That's the whole point, is to reduce hazard for wildfire," he said.



Objections

But Minturn resident Michael Heaphy, who appealed the decision, said the project does nothing to reduce fire risk.

Heaphy points to Forest Service documents about the project. One, an environmental assessment, says, "In lodgepole pine and aspen units, the proposed project would not dramatically alter fire behavior, flame length or rate of spread."

But because more trees have died since the studies began, those documents are based on outdated information, Wettstein said.

Heaphy appealed the plan on many fronts, saying the plan was "arbitrary and capricious" and that alternatives - including doing nothing at all - weren't fully considered.

"Their position is you need to cut down the trees to avoid forest fires," Heaphy said.

Many trees are going to die even without cutting down healthy trees, Heaphy said.

Heaphy also said he objected to the closure of popular hiking trails as well as clearcutting of lodgepole pines on Meadow Mountain.

All of Heaphy's arguments except for the landslide concerns were rejected.

Treatments, such as cutting and thinning, are proposed for 380 acres in high-risk landslide areas. The Forest Service acknowledged that the work could worsen landslide risk. That could cause injuries, damage to houses or roads or even the damming of the Eagle River, the Forest Service said.

The local Forest Service office must now work to remedy problems in the plan. That could mean simply a better explanation of how the plan jibes with mudslide-prevention studies.

"It's part of the process," Wettstein said. "If we didn't quite get it right, we'll fix it."



Other areas

Work could be shifted to other areas of Vail, Wettstein said.

There are some areas near Intermountain where work can still proceed this summer, Wettstein said.

The project lays out plans for 3,000 acres in Eagle County, including Vail, Eagle-Vail, Minturn, Avon, Mountain Star, Wildridge, Beaver Creek and Arrowhead.

Eagle County and surrounding counties have seen the pine beetle epidemic worsen over the last few years. When the forest health project began in 1995, bug experts expected the beetles to kill 50 percent to 70 percent of mature lodgepole pine in the area. Now, the death rate has reached 80 percent to 90 percent in some areas above Intermountain and Minturn and along Red Sandstone Road north of Vail.

The town of Vail committed $250,000 to the Forest Service's efforts. The town and the Forest Service are close to finalizing an agreement that will result in more than $1 million of treatments in the neighborhoods in West Vail over the next five years.



Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or estoner@vaildaily.com.



Vail, Colorado