BLM finalizes management plan

Officials now have criteria for wildland fire suppression efforts

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Little Snake Resource Office Bureau of Land Management officials plan to implement a fire plan this summer that has been several months in the making.

The plan calls for managing wildland fires for resource benefit for the first time in this area. That means wildland fires in designated areas will be allowed to burn as a land management tool. Fire clears out older brush, allowing for new growth that may be more palatable to big game or more suitable for sage grouse cover.

The plan calls for fire response ranging from full suppression to limited fire suppression in certain areas. The safety of the public and firefighter personnel and equipment were the primary consideration of plan authors. Other items considered were resource management objectives, the natural role of fire in the ecosystem, seasonal drying trends, weather predictions and fire suppression costs.

The plan outlines four suppression categories. Portions of Moffat County defined as "A" areas include the City of Craig and most of the land to the east. All fires will be suppressed in those areas. Prescribed fires may be allowed in "B" areas, but all unplanned fires will be suppressed. Fire may be desired in "C" areas, but social, political or ecological constraints must be considered. Many areas west of Maybell have been defined as "D" areas Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land where fire is desired and there are few constraints in its use.

All fires that threaten private or state property will be suppressed unless a landowner signs an agreement with the BLM asking that no fire suppression efforts be taken.

The concept is to let nature take its course where it doesn't threaten structures or private land.

Areas were defined using fire history data and physical features such as land forms and fuel types. Habitat areas for some wildlife species were also evaluated.

If field officers determine they can manage a wildland fire for resource benefit, a resource advisor will be assigned to the fire to provide guidance on managing the fire for special resource concerns such as threatened or endangered species, soil and water issues or cultural resources.

Fires allowed to burn will be monitored, BLM officials said.

The plan was adopted Wednesday after a lengthy review process and period of public comment.

"I'm really pleased," BLM Field Manager John Husband said. "I'm thrilled to have the plan done and it can now be implemented."

Public meetings were held in Maybell and Craig and Husband said residents were generally supportive of the concept. Several people are pursuing talks about a cooperative fire management plan on their private land.

Concerns were expressed about what the plan would do to land which is leased for grazing.

According to Husband, because just about all BLM lands are leased for grazing fires used for resource benefit could impact a rancher's leased area.

"In most cases people will say it's going to improve things," Husband said. "The hard thing is when you have to defer grazing for awhile."

The resource management plan requires that each fire be evaluated and an emergency fire rehabilitation plan be implemented. The standard rest period for post-fire grazing management is two seasons, but that will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Losing grazing rights for up to two years could be hard on some ranchers, but Husband said the BLM will work with them to find out if there is any flexibility in the plan or if other grazing opportunities exist.

An emergency fire rehabilitation plan will also show whether rehabilitation is needed. The BLM will pay to rehabilitate a burned area if life or private property will be threatened if rehabilitation practices are not implemented, if the vegetation that will reestablish naturally is unacceptable such as exotic grasses or noxious weeds or if vegetation will not reestablish on its own and create soil erosion problems.

Rehabilitation efforts can include reseeding an area or planting trees.

Moffat County Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson was concerned about the increased cost the BLM would face in its rehabilitation efforts.

The BLM has fire rehabilitation funds, but they won't pay for rehabilitation caused by unsuppressed fires. Husband said they will have to come up with the money from other funds. He could not estimate the expense, but said it could be a large one.

"I'm sure we'll try to cover it somehow," he said. "It's not as clear on that end."

The Colorado State Department of Health Air Quality Division wanted assurances that smoke management was a priority. According to Husband, the department wanted to know the BLM looked beyond prescribed burns as a fuel management tool. Husband said the department was reassured when told the BLM always looks at other alternatives for fuel management, including brush beating.

"I think for the most part, that takes care of their concerns," he said.

According to BLM statistics, there were 1,330 fire starts from 1980 to 1998 in the Little Snake Resource Office coverage area. Those fires burned 114,188 acres for an average of 70 fires per year burning 6,010 acres.

The fire season usually starts in May and continues through September. Fire activity generally peaks in July, which is the primary season.

"I think we had a lot of good input up front and I think as we get into implementing the plan, we'll be able to continue addressing the concerns of the public," Husband said.

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