Forest management combines short-term action and long-term plan

RAWLINS – It’s the season for pile burning — and long-term planning.

With this in mind, experts say a proactive approach to forest management means taking action today that will ensure the forest is healthy for decades to come.

“We have to think of the lifespan of a forest, which is far more than our own,” said Aaron Voos, a spokesman for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests. “We have to be thinking about what this will look like 50 years from now, and it will be a more diverse, healthy forest.”

Over the past several years, officials have been working on a long-term forest management plan called the Landscape Vegetation Analysis project (LaVA).

If approved, will authorize adaptive management of forest vegetation affected by decades-long struggle against the mountain pine beetle infestation. 

Under the plan, management tools include tree thinning, harvest, hazard tree removal and prescribed burning in the Medicine Bow National Forest, Sierra Madre and Snowy ranges.

The proposed project was introduced to the public in 2017, but the project timeline was adjusted to allow for further clarification. A draft for public review is expected to be released in early 2020. 

If approved, LaVA will provide the planning, implementation and adaptive management foundation for improving forest conditions on 360,000 acres over 15 years. The goal is to reduce the risk of wildfire near communities and allow removal and utilization of beetle-killed timber while it is still marketable.

In the near-term, though, with sufficient snowfall and cold weather conditions, fire personnel on the Medicine Bow National Forest will begin annual slash pile burning.

“Pile burning is about removing undesirable fuels, and it remains an important part of our annual program of work,” said Jay Miller, fire management officer for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland.

Hundreds of piles that need to be removed exist on the two National Forests in Colorado and Wyoming. The piles are typically a result of fuels reduction projects.

Officials have long been using forest management tools, like thinning, commercial timber sales and prescribed burns including pile burning in the fight against wildfire. The LaVA plan, though, takes a long view of the issues facing one of Wyoming’s eight national forests.

“We want to take a more proactive approach to forest management, which then can only help with any future wildfires that we have to deal with,” Voos said. “If we can be smart about when and how we do a prescribed fire, that can be a proactive effort that will lead to better forest health.”

Fire management is very situation specific, Voos said. The Forest Service will do pile burning, for example, if it plans to use a road as a fuel break. Officials will take down timber, creating a wide berth around a fire-susceptible area, and if that timber has no resale value, it will be burned.

Snow, and even a seasonal closure of Hwy. 130 from Saratoga to Centennial, makes it easier for personnel to conduct controlled burns, Voos said.

The more officials carry out short-term mitigation, the more they learn about forest health and regeneration — and the more trust the public will have in the process, he said. 

Officials know that when a fire burns far and fast, that fire will be better for forest regeneration. 

The 2018 Ryan Fire, which burned 33 square miles near Hog Park Reservoir, was startlingly fast-moving, but new growth was already visible this summer.

“That fire burned through so fast that it was a better burn for the forest to regenerate,” Voos said. “Fires that sit in one location and cook the soil, fires that burn for a long time in one spot — those really heat up the soils, sterilizing that soil.”

In prescribed burns, fire personnel will try to mimic a fire that is best for forest health. Officials have been gathering all this knowledge, and, Voos said, bringing it to the public.

“If community is not used to fire, it can be construed as a bad thing. If the only fire a community is used to is perceived as out-of-control, threatening any number of resources, that makes it harder to use fire as a management team,” he said.

However, there is proof that a plan like LaVA will bring relative health to a forest decimated by beetle kill, he said.

Forest users and the public should be aware of and expect to see smoke throughout the upcoming months during the pile burning. The burning of highly visible piles will be advertised closer to the date of ignition and questions should be directed to local Ranger District Offices.

Public notification of site-specific pile burning will occur on the Forests’ Twitter account.