Field surveys are getting underway this summer in the area known as the Frisco Backyard as U.S. Forest Service employees refine plans for upcoming wildfire fuel reduction treatments and recreational improvements.
The plans presented so far have been “purposely broad” as a way of introducing the project in the White River National Forest adjacent to Frisco for feedback from the public, White River National Forest District Ranger Adam Bianchi explained.
“The whole point of scoping is to help us put a framework around what the project is,” Bianchi said. “We’re interested in doing work in this area but we have no specificity to it at this point.”
The Frisco Backyard comprises parts of Mount Royal, Miners Creek, Rainbow Lake, Ophir Mountain and Gold Hill. The proposed project consists of conducting fuel treatment activities on up to 1,233 acres in 11 identified treatment units within the analysis area, according to project documents.
The project area is located in the wildland-urban interface zone around Frisco, a transition area between wildland and human development. The project area is also within part of the newly designated Camp Hale Continental Divide National Monument.
The fuels reduction treatment plans got underway after the Peak 2 fire, which sparked right at the edge of the proposed project area, Bianchi said.
“There was a high probability, looking at the (Peak 2) fire and seeing it torch, that the town of Frisco was at risk,” Bianchi said. “That was the first indication that we need to start thinking about work that can help us be proactive and help us in the case of another fire to protect the infrastructure and values in the town.”
The Peak 2 fire scorched some 84 acres and prompted a two-day evacuation of more than 400 homes in the Breckenridge area. More than 400 firefighters fought the blaze in a response that officials said at the time cost more than $2 million.
From a firefighting perspective, Bianchi said, there were not a lot of contingency plans for protecting Frisco. Firefighters need fuel breaks where they can lay fire retardant and water, he said, otherwise heavy equipment like aircraft are generally needed.
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“We didn’t have much of anywhere to go except for that rec path was sort of the best option, which didn’t make us feel comfortable because it was the best option but it was also close to a lot of infrastructure,” Bianchi said.
If a large-scale fire were to ignite in the project area, it could impact 1,270 Frisco homes, three public schools, St. Anthony Summit Hospital, Interstate 70, water and electric utilities, and invaluable ecosystem services, according to the Forest Service.
When the Forest Service approached Frisco amid the aftermath of the fire with proposed fuels reduction treatments, Bianchi said the town indicated it wanted to adopt new trails and create a more user-friendly sustainable trail system in the Frisco Backyard area.
That led the Forest Service to ask the town to complete a trails master plan with input from the public about which trails are most important to locals and visitors, Bianchi said. He noted that “we’ve just seen an explosion in our recreation” in recent years, with the Dillon Ranger District being the most-visited district in the National Forest system.
That’s why the Forest Service felt it had to do the trail improvements alongside the fuels reduction treatments.
“We feel strongly that you can’t separate the two. The recreational experience is so important and so is the protection of their homes,” Bianchi said. “We’ve got to figure out how to integrate this work so we can create a high quality user experience for recreation but at the same time protect the town.”
For each of 11 identified fuel treatment units, several different treatment types are proposed — from clearcut, patch clearcut, group selection, overstory removal, salvage of dead trees and more.
“That is a big piece of this the public has got to understand, this isn’t a giant clear-cut big blob on the map,” Bianchi said. “These units will be broken down with much more specificity on what the prescription will be and why.”
White River National Forest fuels planner Kathleen Gray said as the project moves forward, maps will become more specific, with clear cutting largely limited to strategic spots with high lodgepole mortality. The Forest Service also doesn’t harvest trees in wetlands and areas with slopes over 40%, which are challenging to treat, she added.
“Around trails, we’re trying to make it more of a cleanup than a clearcut,” Gray said. “So on the next iteration of the public comment period, it’s going to be a lot more specific for folks to comment on the unit size and the prescription.”
The mountain pine beetle epidemic peaked in Summit County around 2012, leading to high mortality in lodgepole pine stands in the Frisco Backyard, Bianchi said, especially near Rainbow Lake and Ophir Mountain. Swathes of downed, dead trees are a fire hazard and dangerous to firefighters, as they are hard to move through, he said.
Stands of dead lodgepoles and piles of dead trees can also shade the forest floor, which can make it hard for new lodgepole pines to germinate, Bianchi explained. Lodgepoles require heat from fire or sunlight for the cones to open and release seeds.
“When you hear the word clear cut, it’s not an economic driver,” Bianchi said. “It’s trying to mimic a natural process, the natural process in this forest ecology is when a fire happens, they are meant to get up into the canopy and run and do a complete stand kill. It allows for new regeneration.”
Fuels treatments laid out in the proposed project are expected to be phased out over at least the next 10 years. The plan is to create a healthy mix of tree species and ages, he said, noting the Forest Service is required to maintain 150 trees per acre in treatment areas or else plant new trees after three years to meet that minimum.
No permanent roads will be constructed as part of the project, according to the Forest Service, but temporary roads, skid trails and landing decks may be necessary to provide access for equipment and staging of material.
A draft environmental assessment is expected to be completed in December, after which there will be an additional 30 day public comment period according to Gray. The proposed project must complete the entire process outlined by the National Environmental Policy Act before it gets underway, she said.
“On the whole, partners and homeowners understand the need for the fuels reduction and wildfire mitigation out there,” Gray said. “Their main message is maintaining that balance of recreational experience and the mitigation activities.”