FUELS REDUCTION ON THE ASHLEY NATIONAL FOREST
The Ashley National Forest’s Roosevelt/Duchesne Ranger District has proposed a fuels reduction proposal for the Yellowstone River drainage below the High Uintas Wilderness down to the forest boundary to assure the numerous campgrounds and structure are not threatened by wildfires in the drainage.
The proposal calls for some thinning and removal of dead fallen ponderosa and removal of flammable understory and “ladder” fuels on some 3,000 acres of ponderosa pine on the east side of the Yellowstone River, mechanical removal and some prescribed fire on 1,000 acres of sagebrush in the bottom of the canyon, and creation of fire breaks around structures, trailheads and campgrounds.
In this case the process used by the Forest Service is probably more troubling that the project. The scoping letter served as both an initial scoping letter and a request for comments on the actual proposed action, bypassing the comment period on an actual Environmental Analysis where alternatives and environmental impacts are discussed. In fact, some of the treatments of ponderosa pine are over a half mile and up slope from the campgrounds/structures and are even within roadless landscapes!
Furthermore, there is no actual indication as to whether or not these ponderosa stands are meaningfully or significantly outside of the historic, ecological condition and what kind of threat they actually pose to a fire regime that would threaten resources in the bottom of the canyon (structures, campgrounds, roads.) Considerable research has been done in the Interior West that has shown our image of static, park-like ponderosa pine stands is simply not representative of ponderosa forests.
More and more evidence is accumulating to show that, regardless of our management actions, fires are far more dependent upon weather patterns than previously recognized. The single, catch-all approach to fire management may not be in line with prevailing weather patterns. The scoping/proposed action letter simply fails to address any of these concerns.
We certainly support that portion of the scoping/pro-posed action that notes there is a need to assure that all structures, private or Forest Service, need to be “fire-proofed.” There is no disputation about how that should be accomplished. Clear and distinct research shows the only effective fuels management related to actually protecting the intended structures is to remove the highly flammable material within 100-300 feet of the structure and to make sure the structures are properly constructed to minimize flammability.
The trailheads involved are crucially important to the wilderness experience. While we agree treatments may be needed, we also recognize that the wilderness experience begins at a wilderness trailhead. This is particularly important for the Swift Creek/Yellowstone Trailhead since it provides access to some of the most wild and expansive portions of the wilderness.
We suggested an alternative to the Ashley that treats only the ponderosa pine and other flammable materials immediately adjacent to campgrounds, structures and roads within the bottom of the canyon as noted above. Where the sagebrush community can actually be shown to be a fire hazard to the structures, we, of course, supported the treatment of sagebrush communities to reduce the fire hazard. No alternative should consider any action within roadless areas as there is no fuel loading issue of consequence.
II. At the same time, the Vernal Ranger District is also proposing a fuels reduction proposal for the area around the East Park Campground on East Park Reservoir.
Again, the process is as troubling as the project—the Vernal Ranger District’s scoping letter served as both an initial scoping letter and a request for comments on the actual proposed action, bypassing the comment period on an actual Environmental Analysis where alternatives and environmental impacts are discussed.
The proposed action is broken into two zones—actions that would occur within a half mile of the campground (Zone 1) and actions within one and a half miles of the campground (Zone 2.) There is no indication whether the project area is meaningfully or significantly outside of the historic, ecological condition inherent in this fire-dependent forest type (lodgepole pine) and what kind of actual threat exists to the campground. By definition there is no ecological threat posed by wildfire in this area since it is wildfire that has determined the context of the forest.
But it is clear that the proposed actions in Zone 1 have merit— removal of ladder fuels, highly flammable understory, thinning of small trees and removal of most down and dead trees in the zone. This would be done with construction of a temporary half mile of road.
The actions in Zone 2— thinning, understory removal, dead tree thinning and removal and fire breaks in roadless area— have little or no merit in terms of fire protection for the campground and its facilities.
This is one of the most heavily impacted and fragmented areas on the forest. The area, both the specific project area and the broader ecosystem, is dominated by clearcuts, thinning projects and roads—all of the things that we have been misled over the years to believe resulted in less erratic and intense fire behavior, but now realize (again, there is little disputation about this) that they are major factors in enhancing both fire intensity and frequency. Here is a proposal that further exacerbates that very problem and continues to add dysfunction to the system.
These are small fuel reduction proposals compared to some in Utah and many across the West. The Ashley should be commended for that, but these actions still represent meaningful concerns. We have urged the Ashley to eliminate the shortcut public comment process and even though these projects are small we have reminded the Ashley over and over that attempting to fire-proof these fire dependent forests is precisely the predicament that has created the apparent problem. It is imperative that the forest be “managed” within the context of the inherent nature of the forest stands or the precise problem that now exists will continue to plague the region.