Plans to reintroduce wildfire to some areas in future
By Katherine Nettles
It’s been an exceptionally busy summer for the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forest Service, with record visitation numbers, wildfire prevention/management and several large projects keeping the district occupied.
GMUG district ranger Matt McCombs has recently returned to the Gunnison Valley from working on-site at the Pine Gulch fire—the largest in Colorado’s history—and reviewed the summer’s progress and expectations for fall with the Crested Butte News.
McCombs also updated Gunnison County commissioners at the beginning of the season on the district’s long-term wildfire strategies; logging road impacts; the end of dispersed camping; Forest Plan Revision releases; and Kebler Pass trailhead improvements.
Transitioning from dispersed camping
The GMUG began decommissioning unsustainable dispersed camping areas and transitioning towards designated camping in the north end of the valley in the past few months, beginning with the Slate and Washington Gulch drainages.
“There are marked changes in Washington Gulch and somewhat in the Slate,” said McCombs. The district has worked to delineate campsites using lodgepole “worm fencing,” some large stone placements and ordering fire rings and signage.
“Fire rings and signage are the major transition, when the space is no longer defined by an open space but by a numbered, readily identified group of sites,” said McCombs. He hopes to do more in the fall, when visitors generally decrease—although this year he expects there may still be visitors “no matter what the weather does.”
With funding allocated from the National Forest Foundation (NFF) and the Gunnison County Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) committee and a partnership with the Crested Butte Conservation Corps, McCombs says it will take about three years for full implementation.
After the first two drainages will come Cement Creek, Brush Creek, Gothic and Coal Creek (including Irwin), or as McCombs refers to them, the six kingdoms of Crested Butte.
McCombs also said the collaboration with Gunnison County, the STOR committee and the NFF has helped tremendously and the new Gunnison County stewardship coordinator, Joe Lavorini, is taking a lot of pressure off the GMUG district to address the issues with camping and trail use.
McCombs reported that the GMUG signed a final plan for the Taylor Park logging/vegetation management project this summer after resolving some concerns from environmental groups and the timber industry.
That project has authorized logging and will eventually reintroduce 4,000 acres to fire as well, in order to restore former ecosystems that benefit from wildfire cycles.
“The Taylor has 19,000 acres of treatment, 15,000 of which is primarily commercial logging to address forest health issues and build resiliency in the lodgepole forests we have that dominate the Taylor Basin,” said McCombs. “But also, there is a unique component around prescribed fire.”
The project was designed to restore fire “in its natural role in the ecosystems where it had been largely absent because of very successful suppression efforts on behalf of the Forest Service, as well as the fact that the forests in and around Taylor Park have fire return intervals that aren’t that rapid or frequent,” said McCombs.
The prescribed fire idea came from a stakeholder group and Western Colorado University faculty science team, and aligns with the Forest Service’s discussions about allowing fire to re-establish itself “in ways that are beneficial to the ecosystem and ultimately the community protection of natural resources, including intact habitats and marshes functioning as close to their natural range as possible,” said McCombs.
However, fire will not be introduced for some time, as it will take a lot of mechanical work, fuels work and commercial logging to get ready “to even contemplate something of that scale or complexity… We are talking years out,” said McCombs.
And preparation work aside, this has been a year to manage fires aggressively due to drought conditions and for both the health of firefighters and vulnerable populations amid the pandemic.
Wilder pine beetle infestation and Lost Canyon Road improvements
The GMUG has also partnered with the NFF, the Colorado State Forest Service and private land owners in Wilder on the Taylor and Gunnison Highlands communities to address the Wilder area, where the agency had detected an epidemic level of mountain pine beetles. Phase 1 of three in the response plan is now complete, which targeted the most heavily infested areas first. That included about 200 acres on both public and private lands, and an extensive monitoring system now in place.
McCombs likened this to the beetle outbreaks and “broad scale type of mortality” that occurred along the I-70 corridor and Highway 40. “There are zero guarantees that we are even going to have success,” he warned. “But I feel confident that we have absolutely put our best foot forward to buy us some time… to keep these at a natural level rather than pandemic level.”
McCombs also said many people have concerns about the roads formed or improved for logging that area and the Lost Canyon Road near Almont and its spur roads.
“We have made some pretty firm commitments to community members that we will be very sensitive to make an absolutely minimum increase in the quality of the road,” he said.
“There were concerns about the impacts to the county road as well—not just improving it and increasing access but also the impacts of the logging itself,” said county manager Mathew Birnie.
Deputy county manager Marlene Crosby requested, “Since this is a county road we want to be in on any discussions about changing it or upgrading it or having work done.”
McCombs agreed that would be forthcoming.
Forest Plan revision
McCombs says the first draft of the full USFS Forest Plan Revision process, which the USFS has been working on for the past two years, will potentially come out in the spring of 2021. It had a pretty heavy pause due to COVID, he noted.
“The reason you haven’t heard much is there is a lot of turning inward right now. We are fine-tuning some of those alternatives… and trying to crank out some analysis, so they can release a plan that will then have a 90-day public comment period.”
McCombs also addressed Kebler Pass trailhead parking improvements, having met with Gunnison County over the summer to narrow in on a plan to accommodate the array of day users, businesses and the commuters who live at Irwin and travel into town by snowmobile during winter.
”I think the improvements we are contemplating are actually way overdue,” he said.
Once a final design is finished, the plan is to meet with the residents, outfitters and guide community to vet what the county and Forest Service have come up with and discuss permitting and signage for the winter ahead.