U.S. Forest Service representatives presented the Medicine Bow National Forest Landscape Vegetation Analysis project to the Albany County Commission on Feb. 20 to clarify any misconceptions about the analysis and how it would benefit ecosystems in the national forest.
The analysis outlines three ways the Forest Service plans to improve the condition of about 360,000 acres of land throughout 15 years. Laramie District Ranger Frank Romero said the forest service could use methods such as clear-cutting trees and prescribed burning among other land management methods to remove dead vegetation.
Romero said following the analysis could help restore the forest ecosystem and reduce the risk of wildfires affecting communities in Albany County.
“We are looking at (treating) approximately 360,000 acres of trees over a 15-year period,” Romero said. “This is for the whole Medicine Bow National Forest, which includes the Snowy Range and the Sierra Madres.”
According to information provided by the forest service, about 360,000 acres would be divided into three categories, stand initiation, uneven aged or intermediate treatments and green tree/shrub land and grass areas, with varying degrees of intervention.
Areas designated for stand initiation would be clearcut and have the most vegetation removed. Portions of the forest designated for uneven aged or intermediate treatments would have groups of trees removed and green tree/shrub land and grass areas, the least severe of the three, would have individual trees removed, forest service information states.
USFS information states clear-cutting could benefit the forest by reducing conifer encroachment, improving the wildlife habitat and protect areas against wildfires by removing trees from specific areas.
About 95,000 acres of land would be designated for stand initiation and is planned to be clearcut for timber production, reducing conifer encroachment and wildlife habitat improvement during the time period, Romero said.
“Most people will think of stand initiation as clear-cut, that is what we are looking at,” he said. “Ninety-five thousand acres seems like a lot (to be clearcut), but we can’t emphasize enough, this is up to 95,000 acres spread across two mountain ranges and a 15 year time period.”
Forest service spokesman Aaron Voos said the operations outlined in the plan have already occurred in the national forest in some degree.
“One thing that is important to think about with this project is a lot of these things (being proposed) are already taking place,” Voos said. “We currently have timber sales. We do some prescribed fires — not to the extent we would like — but, we have mastication and thinning projects.”
Removing timber from the national forest would help preserve the ecosystem while creating employment opportunities for people in Albany County, Albany County Commissioner Heber Richardson said. The forest would be in better shape if there were efforts to clearcut parts of the forest sooner and could have offered these employment opportunities several years ago, Richardson said.
“My only disappointment is that we are 25 years behind schedule,” he said. “I think that all this stuff should have been sold in timber sales long before it got so mature and overgrown that it becomes a government project, rather than a private one.”
Albany County Commission Chairman Tim Chesnut said along with helping the ecosystem, clear-cutting operations remove potential fuels from wildfires that could affect communities, infrastructure and water sources in the area.
“(Older clearcuts) are fire breaks, too,” Chesnut said. “That is what is going to keep the whole forest from burning down, so I appreciate the reason for clearcuts.”
Romero said with the forest’s current condition, it is not a matter of if there would be another fire similar to the Keystone fire, but when.
“When we talk about all the dead timber, it really makes me uncomfortable and nervous about is when are we going to have another fire run through it,” he said.
The forest service plans to implement the project by December and hopes to have the environmental impact statement draft ready for public review in a few months. After the statement is released, the forest service is planning to host a meeting for the public to comment on the report, he said.
“We are anticipating having a draft environmental impact statement in May,” Romero said. “When that happens, (we want) to get it out to the public, give them some time to digest it, and we’ll have a public meeting so people can ask us questions about the documents.”