The U.S. Forest Service has a plan to clear cut some sections of the Upper Fryingpan Valley, beyond Ruedi Reservoir. As the agency assesses the environmental impacts of the project, some neighbors are preparing for a fight.
John Swomley has spent summers at his family’s cabin deep in the Fryingpan Valley since he was a kid, and he has a favorite mountain biking loop in the woods beyond the town of Meredith.
“There’s literally no one on it, and there are these stands of lodgepole pines that have no undergrowth,” Swomley said. “It's just like a ghost forest. You can see tall, skinny trees that go on and on forever. It's just magical."
But large stretches of that forest could soon be leveled. The Forest Service has a plan to clearcut nearly 2,000 acres of mostly lodgepole pine.
Brett Crary is the forester heading up the project for the Forest Service. Part of the purpose is to allow for growth of younger trees. In lodgepole forests, new growth often happens following a beetle epidemic or wild fire.
“And through cutting, we can be a little more deliberate,” Crary said. “We can protect young trees, we can protect spruce, we can protect nesting habitat for birds, we can buffer streams.”
The Forest Service also said this project will benefit wildlife, in particular, the endangered Canada lynx. The primary food source for lynx is snowshoe hare, which thrive in forests with low-hanging branches. The stands of lodgepole in the Upper Fryingpan are older, taller, with branches starting more than 10 feet off the ground.
Forest Service wildlife experts say the work will lead to new growth, with low branches that provide the right kind of food and shelter for these animals. In a natural cycle, this regeneration would come from a stand-clearing fire. So while the Forest Service does use prescribed burns in some areas, Crary said it’s not a good fit in a lodgepole forest.
“To mimic that is really difficult because the type of fire that you would tend to get in lodgepole pine would be during hot, windy, dry conditions,” he said.
And the Forest Service has other obligations.
“You know, the whole idea of having public land was that we don’t necessarily just hold on to the forest that people utilize, and so part of our mission is to provide a sustainable supply of timber to local economies,” Crary said.
In this case, that timber would be headed to a mill in Montrose and a biofuel plant in Gypsum. That means up to 900 logging truck trips on Fryingpan Road and up to 6,000 on the narrow dirt road that connects Eagle and Thomasville.
Residents have a host of concerns. Logging like this means noise, traffic and a change in scenery. Plus, many aren’t convinced that the habitat needs improvement.
John Swomley toured the project area with Rocky Smith, who is a forest management consultant. They walked through a stand of trees that the Forest Service has proposed to clear cut, but Smith said it is healthy.
"I see regeneration, I see good understory, I see decaying wood," Smith said. "There just seems to be no point in it. And no point ecologically. You can’t improve on nature. This is a stand that is doing just fine on its own.”
Nearly 50 people signed a letter that Smith wrote in protest of the project last year. Like Swomley, many of them live and play in the Fryingpan Valley and have seen this before. The Forest Service cut about 270 acres in a timber sale in the last couple of years.
Swomley and Smith walk through acres of clear-cut forest, stepping over stumps and broken branches. The discarded wood has been piled about 20 feet high, waiting to be burned. Smith said this type of fire is incredibly hot and harmful.
“[It] damages the soil, sterilizes it, gets rid of the microorganisms and volatizes nutrients,” he said.
The clear cutting has changed the landscape, and this last timber sale was only a fraction of the size of the proposed project. So Swomley is prepared for a long legal battle.
"The reason I'm going to take the stand I'm going to take is, if we don't, they'll just keep doing what they do here and using it as the way to satisfy their logging interests when they could find places where it’s not so heavily utilized as a recreation area," Swomley said.
The Forest Service is expected to release an environmental assessment of the project in the coming weeks.