Brakes applied to Routt County timber sale

U.S. Forest Service backs away from proposed Morrison Creek logging project

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The U.S. Forest Service has slowed the pace of a tentative plan to sell timber on Morrison Creek in southeast Routt County.

Kent Foster of the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest said Wednesday plans to release an analysis of the timber sale this summer have been delayed until at least October. That is the same month when the first public hearing on the timber sale might be held. Whatever happens, Foster said he now thinks it's unlikely the maximum timber cutting and road building described when the plan was first announced will ever take place.

The Morrison Creek sale aroused the ire of neighbors in the remote part of Routt County southeast of Stagecoach Reservoir. County Road 16 to Lynx Pass is the only improved road in the vicinity. The Forest Service released its notice of intent in February.

Foster said the Forest Service shares many of the concerns the public has expressed in more than 100 letters since early spring, and for that reason, his office is taking its time with the analysis. Foster is a supervisory forester with the Yampa Ranger District.

"It's fairly controversial because the Morrison Creek watershed is inventoried as a roadless area," Foster said. "We want to make sure we do the right thing. It's not Kevorkian forestry by any means."

Foster's reference to assisted suicide was meant to convey that the Routt Forest Plan identifies Morrison Creek as a part of the forest where extraction of natural resources should be balanced with a variety of concerns. They include wildlife issues, the health of timber stands, access issues and public recreation.

The Morrison Creek status as a roadless area is a signal that it could someday be given wilderness status. But Morrison Creek was among roadless areas on the Medicine Bow/Routt which were identified as not ideal for wilderness designation, the last time the forest plan was rewritten in 1997. An environmental organization, Colorado Wild, has appealed the plan.

Foster said the proposed timber sale would be a maximum of 1,100 acres of mostly mature lodgepole pine. Cutting the timber could require building up to 14 miles of new road. But he said it now appears likely that neither of those outcomes will happen.

"We have a lot of options," Foster said.

One of the trends being taken into consideration in the Yampa Ranger District is a nationwide moratorium on building new roads in roadless areas. The Routt (not the Medicine Bow) is one of just a handful of national forests around the country exempted from that moratorium because its forest plan was so recently rewritten.

Just the same, Foster said, his ranger district wants to be respectful of that national trend.

One of the primary reasons Morrison Creek was selected for a timber sale, Foster said, is its susceptibility to the mountain pine beetle. While there is no sign of an epidemic at this time, conditions in the timber stands on Morrison Creek are prime for the harmful insect, he said. And the outbreak of pine beetles in nearby Eagle Valley has caught his attention.

Foster explained the beetles flourish in the inner bark layers of mature trees. The density of the stands on Morrison Creek means the insects would have less distance to travel and an easier time of propagating. Because the growth of the older trees is slowing down, they are less vigorous and less able to fend off the beetles.

Lodgepole pine are a fire-dependent species, Foster said. They are shade intolerant and actually depend upon fire to clear the way for new seedlings that will restore age classes to the timber stand. He said he can stand at points along the only county road splitting the valley, and see where the last fire left off about 120 years ago by noticing the relative size of the trees.

It's no surprise that most of the trees along Morrison Creek are between 100 and 150 years old. Some are even older. But "old growth" isn't really a term that applies to lodgepole; they were never meant to hang around the 400 to 500 years that spruce trees can.

Foster said tentative logging plans for Morrison Creek are meant to remove some of the mature over story in places, to allow the seedlings of other species to come to the fore. And in other stands, clear cuts would be proscribed to allow lodgepole regeneration.

But there are problems.

"Access is a huge issue," Foster acknowledged. "The major recreation use is in hunting season."

That's what has neighbors upset. They reason that a new road would bring more hunters who would displace the resident elk herd and cause more litter and erosion in the area.

"There's not too many valleys left pristine like they were 100 years ago, and now they're going to go in and open it up," fourth-generation rancher Dan Younger said in February.

Interested people may contact the Yampa Ranger District at (970) 638-4516.

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