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San Isabel National Forest part two

by Darrell Arnold

PART II

SINF- Forest Ranger Jeffer Wingate is facing interesting challenges as he tries to manage San Isabel National Forest (SINF) in Huerfano County.

    "Our biggest problem is forest health.  The bark beetles aren’t here yet, but they’re working their way south.  Estimates are that within the next five years or so, all the adult lodgepole pines in Colorado will be dead.  We have lodgepole populations in several areas.

    "The beetles tailor themselves to tree hosts that are unhealthy," says Wingate. "They can detect when trees are stressed, and they attack those trees."

    Perhaps the biggest reason our forests are stressed is because of overcrowding brought on by a century of fire suppression.

    Wingate says, "There is evidence pointing to that idea.  Tree stands get too thick, and trees have to compete with each other for nutrients, water, and sunlight."

    Besides disease, the suppression of natural fires has also resulted in filling our forests with excess amounts of fuel, causing forest fires to be more damaging than they otherwise might have been.

    "We do want to get those fuels cleaned out of there.  That’s why we are trying to initiate forest thinning projects that mimic what the landscape would look like if we hadn’t suppressed those fires."

    One way such thinning projects are carried out is by combining mechanical treatment with prescribed fires.  Using machines called masticators, they splinter the trees and branches and put them down on the ground so the nutrients are recycled faster.  Then fire crews move in, light that downed fuel, and try to burn out the undergrowth.

    "They don’t want to kill all the trees.  They do want to clean out the underbrush to reduce the chance of worse fires in the future," says Wingate.  "It’s a balancing act."

    Any prescribed burn, however, brings with it an unpredictable measure of risk.

    Says Wingate, "The urban interface, where subdivisions come up next to the forest, is the priority area of concern.  As more and more people move into subdivisions in the forests, it becomes more and more difficult for fire managers to use fire as a tool to reduce the fuel hazard load.  "If they do a prescribed burn, all the conditions will have to be right  temperature, humidity, fuel load, fire-fighting resources.  They will suppress those fires if there is any danger they can’t be controlled.  Further, where lives or property won’t be threatened, and under certain very strict conditions, we’ll try to let wildfires go as well."

    Another major impact to the forest in the future will probably be energy exploration.  Wingate says, "We have heard from some companies who are interested in doing some gas and oil exploration.  We’re going to see applications for coal-bed methane and natural gas.  Initial applications require a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.  That is the overriding legislation that the Forest Service looks at for all changes on forest use.  We look at alternatives that might mitigate the damages."

    If gas and oil exploration happens, then there may be many more roads open up in San Isabel National Forest, especially in Huerfano County.  Official policy at present is to avoid building new roads to protect the wildlife resources. But the Forest Service’s mandate to honor multiple use will likely result in more roads if they have to accommodate gas and oil exploration.

    Wingate loves the land he supervises, and he is passionate about managing it properly.  But, because he is the only full-time employee here, he is eager to accept help from others.

    "The idea that people can enjoy those lands and give back a little bit is something we try to foster.  We’re going to continue to need the help of volunteers.  We want to encourage people to take a personal interest in caring for these lands.  I want people to come in and talk to me about it."