If you’ve noticed any smoke around the Pole Mountain Unit of the Medicine Bow National Forest in recent weeks, you’re seeing the U.S. Forest Service in the midst of work to improve habitat in the area.

The Pole Mountain Vegetation Project is a long-term operation now underway, with work expected to continue for at least another seven years. The project began in 2014.

As part of the project, crews are conducting prescribed burns this summer to increase herbaceous understory, reduce common juniper and encourage aspen growth. The total treatment area includes about 9,000 acres of the 55,000-acre area, acting forest fuels specialist Jerod DeLay said.

Other treatment strategies include mechanical work such as felling trees by chainsaw and using machines to grind up vegetation, also known as mastication.

The condition of native vegetation has been declining, and the Forest Service is concerned about fuel loading and range health, DeLay said.

For example, healthy ponderosa pine ecosystems feature larger trees spaced 30-40 feet apart with a grassy understory.

“With the (suppression) of fire, a lot of that smaller pine can grow up underneath, a lot of the brush can grow up underneath,” DeLay said.

In the case of a large wildfire, the consequences of crowded stands could be devastating.

“If fire does happen, that leads to ladder fuels that can grow to the crowns of the big ponderosa pines and totally wipe out the stands,” he said.

The Pole Mountain Unit typically averages about 10 fires a year, caused either by humans or lightning.

DeLay said prescribed burns are able to clear out the undergrowth while preserving the larger trees.

“It really knocks out the smaller diameter, younger pine that’s in our stands,” he said.

Many aspen stands on the Pole Mountain Unit have been hit by disease or overgrown by common juniper. Healthy stands are also heavily browsed by big game such as mule deer and elk. The goal in that case is to encourage new growth and healthier aspen stands.

“That was another part of it — if we can get enough of the aspen spread out all over the landscape so we don’t focus deer and elk and moose in one area,” DeLay said.

The Forest Service doesn’t want to eliminate juniper from the landscape, as it provides cover and food for several types of wildlife, including wild turkeys. However, it can also act as a ladder fuel during a wildfire, hence the goal of reducing its presence.

“It will burn really hot,” DeLay said.

A prescribed burn took place in late June, and DeLay said more burns could continue in the fall on the northern part of the unit, depending on weather conditions. The burn areas vary in size from a couple acres to as much as 100 acres.

Burn areas are surrounded by either green vegetation or blackened lines from previous burns, both of which act as a fire break. Dispersed recreation could be affected, but signs will be placed on nearby roads, and recreationists will be notified of closures.

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