Wednesday, March 12, 2008

BLM eyes ways to reduce threat of wildfire

Greenhorn Gulch among areas considered for fuels-reduction projects

Express Staff Writer

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is in the early stage of analyzing several different fuels-reduction projects that would target federal lands located in the Wood River Valley.

The projects could include timber-thinning efforts as well as aspen-restoration treatments on lands in the Greenhorn Gulch, Quigley Creek and Bell Mountain areas, Shoshone office Field Manager Lori Armstrong told the Blaine County Commission on Tuesday. The meeting was scheduled to provide the commission with an update on projects the local BLM office is working on.

Armstrong emphasized that no decisions have been made on the proposed fuels-reduction projects and that approval of the projects would require a round of environmental assessments.

"These are not totally refined," she said.

The projects could include some timber sales to help pay for them, though Armstrong said recent timber sales offered by the BLM in Idaho on similar projects have failed to elicit bidders. She said the cost of transporting timber to faraway sawmills has contributed to a downturn in the number of timber companies that have shown interest in bidding on federal timber sales.

Armstrong said any timber removed as part of the fuels-reduction projects would be done by helicopter. She said no roads would be built and all timber cutting would be done by crews on the ground walking in from existing roads.

"None of these (projects) have road building in them. We don't want to do that," she said.

For the Greenhorn Gulch project, the BLM has worked with local property owners concerned about the threat of wildfire in the wildland-urban interface, Armstrong said. She said the interest of the homeowners was especially piqued after the 48,520-acre Castle Rock Fire burned close to several homes in the area late last summer.

Armstrong said the BLM's local forester has estimated that the Greenhorn Gulch project could cost between $300,000 and $500,000. She estimated that up to $50,000 could be raised to help offset that cost if timber from the project were sold.

The Greenhorn Gulch project would entail about two months of heavy truck traffic as well as some helicopter traffic that could be seen and heard from nearby homes.

Armstrong said the aspen-regeneration projects would help lessen the threat of wildfire for nearby homes.

"Aspen helps create a defensible space," she said.

Of all of the proposed projects, the Bell Mountain fuels-reduction and forest-restoration project has the best opportunity for a timber sale, Armstrong said.

Bell Mountain is located about eight miles southeast of Bellevue behind Lookout Mountain, the prominent peak that rises up just outside of town. The mountain is in the middle of a large patch of BLM land south of Muldoon Canyon.

Armstrong said the Bell Mountain project could be dependent on completing a successful timber sale there.

"We're not sure we can pull it off due to the timber sale values," she said.

During her presentation to the commissioners, Armstrong also discussed the status of the "Blaine County Cooperative Conservation Recreation and Travel Plan," a draft plan the county recently forwarded to the BLM that spells out how the approximately 160,000 acres of BLM lands in the valley will be managed in the years to come. The commissioners recently gave their tentative approval to the plan, which sets out management of the large area in separate winter and summer recreation maps attached to the 57-page document.

As part of an assistance agreement it signed several years ago with the BLM, the county agreed to develop the draft travel plan to manage the rural BLM lands located on both sides of the valley.

A full two years in the making, the far-reaching plan is now in the hands of the BLM for an in-depth environmental assessment. The BLM will have the final say on the plan once the assessment is complete. The process will include public comment.

Armstrong said she recently held an initial staff briefing on the plan at the Shoshone office. She said that if all goes well, BLM staff may begin some fieldwork this summer as part of their consideration of the travel plan. However, she said, work will more likely begin this fall due to higher-priority projects, which include the Bald Mountain Master Plan.

Armstrong pegged 2010 as the earliest date the Blaine County travel plan could be implemented.

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