How can forest health be improved?: The Salter Y project has critics, but offers likely long-term gains

Part II of a two-part series

Read Part I


From left, David Casey, supervisory forester with the Dolores Ranger District, Jackie Rabb, and Robert Meyer, chair of the Mancos Trails group, are on a tour in the Chicken Creek area near Mancos on April 25. This is an untreated area. Meyer is leaning on a stump cut in the 1920s wIth a two-man crosscut saw, which leaves high stumps. Photo by Janneli F. Miller

Sometimes in life we have to engage in unwelcome short-term behavior in order to get long-term results. To lose weight, for in­stance, we may have to give up desserts or big Mac’s for a time.

That sort of decision is being considered in regards to the Salter Y Vegetation Man­agement Project in the Dolores District of the San Juan National Forest.

The question is whether proposed short-term treatments, which include commercial logging and some prescribed burning, will provide long-term benefits that will outweigh the impacts of the treatments on recreation and the environment.

“The current need for mitigation on the Salter Y area is really due to the public,” not­ed Jen Stark, Dolores Town trustee, after at­tending a tour of an area near Mancos called Chicken Creek. The tour of a previously treated forest site was sponsored by the Do­lores Watershed Resilient Forest Collabora­tive (DWRF) on April 25 to help the public understand the possible impacts of the Salter Y Vegetation Management project.

The project, which is expected to last about 10 years, will take place on 22,346 acres of national forest northwest of Dolo­res, including the popular Boggy Draw area.

Stark explained that “public pressure on political spheres and government policy gen­erated a long-term fire-suppression strategy.” Historic extractive activities such as timber harvesting and cattle grazing combined with current drought conditions have had delete­rious impacts on local forest health.

According to Danny Margolis, DWRF coordinator, “We want to facilitate focused practical and meaningful dialogue about the project. The framing of the project is very much in line with the goals and mission of DWRF.”

The Salter Y project is aimed at improv­ing forest health, but it will change the forest experience for users while it is taking place.

The draft environmental assessment pre­pared by David Casey, supervisory forester for the Dolores Ranger District, explains that the purpose and need for the project is threefold:

  • to improve resilience and resistance to epidemic insect and disease outbreaks;
  • to increase the structural diversity of the ponderosa pine forest repre­sented across the landscape
  • to provide economic sup­port to local communities by providing timber products to local industries in a sustainable manner.

The draft EA proposes three alternatives: no action; the modified proposed action; and a large-tree-retention alterna­tive that limits harvesting to trees 20 inches or less in diam­eter at breast height (dbh).

Forest officials acknowledge that the project will have sig­nificant impacts on recreation, wildlife, vegetation, watersheds, soils, scenery and transporta­tion. The reasoning is that these impacts will be far less damag­ing to the forest than the im­pacts of major wildfires, insect infestation and overall declining forest health if nothing were done.

The area targeted for treatment is in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), the transi­tion between unoccupied land and human development. If left untreated the area in question could potentially be subject to de­structive crown fires, according to the draft EA.

The areas designated for treatment in this project are neither resilient nor diverse. There are very few large trees, many dense stands of same-age, same-size trees, and a signifi­cant amount of brushy oak undergrowth.

This forest structure inhibits seedling production and regeneration, since trees in tight clusters compete for water and sunlight and may become stressed. Stressed trees are susceptible to insect infestations or parasitic growth such as mistletoe, and are less likely to resist fire.

According to forest officials, removing weak trees and brushy overgrowth through tree-cutting, tree planting and prescribed fire improves the ability of the remaining trees to become healthier, produce seedlings and resist fire. More frequent, low-intensity fires are easier to manage and incur less damage.

In addition to the draft EA, a 73-page bio­logical evaluation describes direct and indi­rect impacts of all three alternatives to sensi­tive animal species such as the boreal toad, northern leopard frog, flannelmouth sucker, flammulated owl, Lewis’ woodpecker, and northern goshawk.

It addresses pollinators including Monarch butterflies, the Western bumblebee, and sev­eral species of bats.

Species of special interest are Abert’s squirrel, mule deer and elk, the hairy wood­pecker and some other bird species.

Many of the environmental impacts in both the draft EA as well as the biological evaluation are listed as “Finding of No Sig­nificant Impact,” meaning the treatment ac­tivities will not really impact the forest.

But some environmentalists disagree.

Jimbo Buickerood, lands and forest pro­tection program manager for the nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance, submitted com­ments saying, “We find the determination of a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) to be invalid being the EA provides insuf­ficient information on which to make that finding.”

Matt Sturdevant, district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, acknowl­edges that there are a wide range of species in the proposed project area.

“The project area provides habitat for a multitude of wildlife species including elk, mule deer, black bear, mountain lion, coy­ote, fox, bobcat, and Merriam’s turkey, dusky grouse, Cooper’s hawk, red-tailed hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, northern goshawk and many other species,” he wrote. “The area contains valuable fawning and calving grounds for deer and elk, as well as critical winter range for these same species.”

CPW said it supports the project because it will improve forest health. “We recognize that short term impacts to wildlife may oc­cur from the construction and use of roads, as well as the mechanical and human distur­bance during vegetation thinning. However, we believe that the improved wildlife habitat offsets these impacts in the long run.”

 ‘Need to be patient’

The Dolores Ranger District is consider­ing 123 public comments it received during the comment period, which ended in March. District Ranger Derek Padilla explained that if comments fall within the prescription of the draft EA there will be no need to write a new EA and the project will proceed.

Citizens in support of the project ex­pressed an understanding that short-term disruptions to recreation, including camping, mountain-biking, hiking and hunting in the area, are undesirable but necessary.

“The intention behind this project is a good one. In order to promote forest health and resiliency, many of us will need to be pa­tient with closures, noise, traffic, changes in aesthetics, etc.,” wrote Robin Richard, local resident of 17 years.

But some people think otherwise.

“Although I understand the purpose of this project, I oppose it due to the fact this is a high use recreational area. The noise and pollution of the large trucks, as well as the falling timber would greatly affect the safety as well as the recreational experience,” wrote Gretchen Schmeisser.

The draft EA admits that economic im­pacts are unknown, but the project is expect­ed to boost local timber operations, one of its stated goals. It is uncertain whether log­ging’s benefits would outweigh the benefits of the burgeoning recreation industry.

The most frequent concern expressed in public comments was the disruption to rec­reational activities and the recreation econo­my. Other concerns were the lack of specific economic information, and the treatment activities and scope of the project.

Some commenters asked for retention of large trees and adaptive forest management strategies. Some expressed safety concerns, especially regarding the primary access road to the project, County Road 31.

“My number one concern is the paved road that leaves Dolores on the way to the Boggy Draw area and the Salter area. This road is already excessively traveled and not well maintained. This creates a hazard for the users of the road no matter what purpose,” wrote Mike Hill.

Seven environmental organizations (in­cluding SJCA, Center for Biological Diver­sity, and Defenders of Wildlife) urged the SJNF to adopt Alternative 3, which leaves larger trees standing (no harvesting of trees over 20 inches dbh).

Wildfire potential

The availability of companies to do some commercial logging is key to the project.

The thinking is that since there is now tim­ber industry in place, tree cutting can take place in a swifter and more economical man­ner than when the Forest Service cuts and then sells the harvested trees.

Casey told the group on the DWRF tour that he can “sell right off the tree,” eliminat­ing the need for decking and huge timber piles, which means less disruption to forest areas and a quicker treatment time.

The Montezuma County commissioners supported Alternative 2 in comments.

“We realize that there will impacts to all of the resources in the project area and that some of them will be negative for a short time,” they wrote. “However the long term benefits to all resources will out-weigh the short term inconveniences.”

While the project may impact recreation, they wrote, “The potential for catastrophic wildfire far outweighs the possible economic loss from recreation due to treatment. . . . We agree that we are trying to achieve a healthy, resilient forest that is resistant to disease, insect and wildfire outbreaks. However that does not mean that we envision some sort hands-off pre-Columbian forest condition.”

Dolores’s mayor and trustees also support Alternative 2, but voiced concerns. “There is not adequate language in the Draft EA ad­dressing the negative economic impact due to the temporary loss of recreational oppor­tunities,” they wrote.

They especially focused on impacts to hunting, stating that since big-game numbers are declining in the Salter Y area, it was “im­perative” the project not further impact big game.

The local economy

But it is not only hunters who provide eco­nomic benefits to Dolores.

Mark Youngquist, owner of the popular Dolores River Brewery in operation for 19 years, also noted potential economic impacts.

“There appears to be little mention of the possible economic impacts of trail closures both temporary and long term on the local businesses other than logging, as well as the impacts on the attractiveness of the vistas and intimacy of the camping experiences available in the Boggy Draw area,” he wrote.

Peter Eschallier, owner of Cortez’s Ko­kopelli Bike and Boards, which is opening a new store in Dolores, did not mince words in expressing his opposition: “I am concerned that this project would impact the Boggy Draw trail system negatively, reducing the number of mountain bikers that visit and use this area. We are committed to investing in our sustainable outdoor industry. . . Any in­terruption and negative impact to these trails would be disastrous to our business.”

Kokopelli co-owner Scott Darling agreed, writing, “This proposed logging could not come at a worse time. The trail expansion that was just finished may be altered, negat­ing countless volunteer hours of work.”

Dolores’ interim town manager, Ken Charles told the Free Press, “There’s no doubt that the recreation industry will be impact­ed,” but said the town was not taking a posi­tion.

The town encouraged the SJNF to work with the Southwest Colorado Cycling Asso­ciation on trail closures, detour routing and signage, and public education measures.

SWCCA is a local nonprofit committed to enhancing the mountain-bike experience by building and maintaining local trails, includ­ing those in Boggy Draw. They also host and sponsor local races including the upcoming 12 Hours of Mesa Verde, to be held May 8.

Dani Gregory of SWCCA included three pages of recommendations in her com­ments. “This project will result in temporary trail closures which will hurt local businesses, anger users and deter visitors,” she wrote.

SWCCA recently constructed 24.4 miles of trails in the Boggy Draw system.

Gregory said “there is not adequate lan­guage in the EA addressing the negative eco­nomic impacts due to the temporary loss of recreational opportunities.”

Approximately one-quarter of those com­menting recommended following the sug­gestions of SWCCA or mitigating impacts on trails.

Other specific concerns mentioned by Dolores town officials included the impacts to residents on 11th Street, which turns into CR 31. The town wants to have a designated truck route, to limit commercial traffic on 11th Street from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and to ensure that contractors are aware that the in-town speed limit of 15 mph on 11th Street will be enforced.

This was mentioned by several people.

“The movement of heavy equipment to and from the proposed project areas requires that oversize machines and vehicles travel on local paved and unpaved county roads,” wrote Shaine Gans, who lives near Boggy Draw. “This poses an unnecessary danger to residents. . .”

In addition, Dolores officials wanted more information on potential impacts to water quality, and suggested that the Forest Service address effects to fisheries, erosion control, or possible spills.

But the Dolores Water Conservancy Dis­trict said the project would help protect wa­ter quality in the long term.

Mike Preston, former general manager of the DWCD, commented that the project “will avoid damage and disruption to water supplies by lowering the risk of catastrophic wildfire and the damage done by toxic run­off into the Dolores River from fire scars. These vegetation treatments will contribute to the availability and quality of Dolores River water flowing into McPhee Reservoir.”

Preston continued, “Areas that have re­ceived mechanical and prescribed fire treat­ments offer improved recreation and hunting opportunities coupled with significant reduc­tion in wildfire risks. The benefits that pro­posed treatments will have on water quality and availability are of profound interest to everyone that relies upon McPhee reservoir as their water source.” Forest products What about local logging companies and foresters?

The two timber companies mentioned by the Dolores District’s Padilla and Casey dur­ing the DWRF tour were Montrose Forest Products and the Ironwood group. The Iron­wood facility, located on County Road T out­side Dolores, was established in 2019, when owners from Oregon purchased and refur­bished the old Montezuma County plywood plant. The company produces wood pellets and plywood veneer.

Montrose Forest Products, LLC, which is owned by Neiman Enterprises out of Wyo­ming, uses beetle-killed ponderosa pine to manufacture studs, timbers and various shop grades cuts, pine boards, pattern, decking, and industrial, or shop, lumber.

Tim Kyllo, resource forester for Montrose Forest Products, wrote that “our 95 direct employees at the mill and approximately 120 people that make up our independent logging and trucking contractors are extremely sup­portive of any effort the San Juan National Forest makes to provide commercial timber for bid.” Timber products extracted from the Salter Y project area would be transported and marketed out of the area.

Kyllo’s comments focus on lessening re­strictions on logging in the proposed Salter Y project area. “We strongly urge the SJNF to not limit the construction of temporary road construction to access planned timber sale units,” stating that the landscape conditions require “the absolute need for purchasers to be able to build temporary road locations on pre-approved USFS locations as necessary to economically log and haul the timber to mill sites. This must be incorporated into the final decision without restrictions.”

Molly Pitts, Colorado programs manager for the Intermountain Forest Association out of Salida, commented, “Given that sev­eral of IFA’s members heavily rely on tim­ber output from the San Juan National For­est and have made substantial investments to help facilitate treatments, we are excited about the proposed Salter Vegetation Man­agement project on the Dolores District.” She agrees with the need to increase age class and structural diversity in the forest and sup­ports Alternative 2.

“We feel strongly that Alternative 3, with a diameter cap of 20 inches, will not achieve the desired goals and objectives and will put stands at risk from insects and disease and catastrophic wildfire. Furthermore, it will limit flexibility in creating the necessary habi­tat for wildlife.”

But some comments by retired foresters or citizens with backgrounds in forestry were highly critical of the proposed project.

Harold Ragland, of Ragland and Sons Logging and Stonertop Lumber, has 53 years of experience working in the forest. He be­lieves that “logging and recreation can oper­ate in a complementary fashion.” His prima­ry concern is with controlled burns, which he feels are a “complete disaster.” Fire dam­age turns a piece of wood that could pos­sibly could be used as valuable molding to dunnage which is nearly worthless, he said, and controlled burns decrease the value of the public’s timber by up to 100 times. He also said controlled burns do “cruel and in­humane damage” to wildlife.

William Baker of the University of Wyo­ming stated, “Reasons given for preferring Alternative 2 over Alternative 3 are not valid. . . . It is well documented that in ponderosa pine forests it is these large, old trees that provide the essential resistance and resil­ience to fire that is now particularly needed as fire is increasing with global warming. Large trees have the thickest bark, the high­est crown base height, and have the greatest ability to survive substantial crown scorch­ing and still resprout and survive. It is thus essential for the Final EA, if the goal is to include increased resistance and resilience to fire, to heed and remedy the serious de­ficiency in large trees as an essential part of the desired conditions for the project area.” Another critic, Dick Artley, a forester, sub­mitted 21 pages of comments. “Never be­fore have I heard of such ham-handed mis­management of the precious land owned by 332 million Americans,” he wrote.

Artley voiced concern about the proposed use of glyphosate on noxious weeds. He is concerned about the use of fire and logging to prevent forest fires. He said fire-preven­tion measures should instead focus on re­ducing the flammability of houses, planning evacuation routes, burying power lines, and zoning to reduce growth into WUI areas.

Public comments objecting to the proj­ect, or urging the Forest Service to mitigate impacts on recreation by preserving the trail system at Boggy Draw, ran about 3 to 1.

Buickerood told the Free Press the draft EA was one of the weakest he had seen, contain­ing little economic information. “I’m afraid that the economic piece is too tilted towards forest industry,” he said. “Frankly it seems to be giving industry some contracts, and they’ll make more money on the big trees.” He is also concerned about ex­actly where the economic benefits from log­ging will go. “It very well might be that most of that financial gain will go out of the area, if they are mostly purchased by Montrose.”

Buickerood said, “I think you can restore the forest and provide some economic ben­efit in the same time. There is short-term disruption, but can we figure out a way to minimize that? It would include cutting back on the number of days harvest is going on and the number of areas that are open at one time, and not roll over all the work that has been done.” Sam Bagge, who grew up biking these trails and has a degree in environmental and sustainability studies, wrote that “the meth­ods being proposed are detrimental to the ecosystem and biking community. There are less invasive management tactics that can be employed. While they will most likely be more costly and timely they are necessary to preserve the unique trail system and the eco­system it is in.”

Gail Binkly contributed to this article.

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