Boulder County is calling in the choppers to elevate its forest management strategy.
Peter Brown, founder of Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research, said the forests around Boulder County historically supported roughly 80 trees per acre. Today there are generally 300 to 400 trees per acre. Some areas have as many as 1,000 trees per acre, greatly hindering the health of the forest and increasing the risk of wildfires, he said.
The problem is many of these densely forested areas are difficult to access and even more difficult to remove material from. As such, only 2,200 acres have been treated since 1994.
To complete its management of Heil Valley Ranch just north of Altona, Boulder County Open Space has hired Markit! Forestry Management and R&R Conner Helicopters to help thin 162 acres of forest on the area’s steep and rocky hillsides.
“Because of steep slopes that rise to the east of the Lichen Loop parking lot, we really can’t get equipment on the hillside,” said Stefan Reinold, Boulder County’s senior forestry resource specialist,.. “Instead we’ll have hand crews cutting down the trees and using helicopters to move the trees to a landing area where we’ll process the wood.”
While using a helicopter is expensive. This project will cost just over $1 million, it’s highly effective and cost-effective in the long run, according to county officials. The lion’s share of funding was provided by way of a Federal Emergency Management Agency Pre-Disaster Mitigation grant and Colorado State Forest Service Forest Restoration and Wildfire Risk Mitigation grant.
With a more natural structure to the forest Boulder County Parks and Open Space can then employ prescribed fires to remove underbrush and mitigate fire danger. Removing competition for nutrients and water also promotes healthier trees that are better equipped to fight off infections or infestations.
Such management also helps prevent large scale fires capable of burning through the ponderosa pines’ fire-resistant bark and eliminating the forest altogether, as was seen in the aftermath of the Overland Fire that burned 3,500 acres in Jamestown and Lefthand Canyon in 2003.
“Ponderosa pines were designed to survive wildfire not reproduce from it like the lodgepole pine forests in Yellowstone National Park,” Reinold said. “That whole hillside in the Overland fire is basically still barren.”
Once the Heil Valley Ranch project is completed, Reinold estimates 3,200 tons of material will be removed from the forest that will then be thrown into a chipper and used as biomass to heat the Boulder County Jail and Boulder County Open Space and Transportation Complex in Longmont for up to three years.
During the project, which is expected to start on Dec. 15 and last two to three months depending on the weather, the Lichen Loop and Grindstone Quarry Trail will be closed Monday through Friday but will reopen on the weekends when work stops.
Boulder County Parks and Open Space will hold an open house on on the Heil Valley Ranch project, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Ron Stewart Parks & Open Space Building, 5201 St. Vrain Road in Longmont.