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Timber harvest project given green light by Dolores Ranger District

Final approval pending; work on 22,000-acre project would begin in 2023
Ponderosa pine are overstocked in the San Juan National Forest and lack age diversity. A timber harvest is planned to thin out forests to reduce potential for large wildfires and improve forest resiliency to drought and insect infestation. (Courtesy of San Juan National Forest)

The Dolores Ranger District has given preliminary approval for a large logging and forest treatment project covering 22,346 acres north of Dolores.

The Salter Vegetation Management Project will involve commercial-level timber harvesting of ponderosa pine over the next 10 years.

Proposed treatment areas are in the vicinity of Salter Y, Plateau Creek, Carlyle Point, Turkey Knoll and Boggy Draw.

Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla said the proposed project’s goals are to increase the stand diversity of the ponderosa pine forest ecosystem, improve ponderosa forest resiliency to drought and insects, open up habitat for wildlife and livestock grazing and provide economic opportunities for the timber industry.

Treatment activities include a combination of timber harvest, tree planting and prescribed burning.

For more information

Project documents are available at: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=57671.

Planning, presentations and public input have been ongoing for nearly two years, Padilla said. An Environmental Assessment was conducted.

More than 100 letters of public comment were received, and adjustments were made to accommodate forest recreation.

Padilla issued the project a Finding of No Significant Impact draft decision notice June 23. A 45-day objection period is underway for those who have previously submitted comments about the proposed project.

Pending final approval, 2023 would be the earliest that logging sales would go on the market for harvesting, Padilla said.

According to project documents, no new permanent roads would be built with the project, though up to 117 miles of temporary roads may be required to reduce the need for excessive tractor skidding and to allow wood products to be moved to the permanent road system. They would be constructed, used and reclaimed when rainfall and erosion potential is minimal. These segments would be decommissioned within five years of first use.

The maximum tree diameter available for harvest is 26.9 inches. The plan specifies that old-growth trees will be identified and will not be cut down.

The Boggy Draw area is mostly second-growth ponderosa pine, said Travis Bruch, timber fuels program manager. It was logged in the 1920s and ’30s. The majority of the trees are 10 to 20 inches in diameter.

Logging routes will cross forest roads, including Boggy Draw, House Creek and the Dolores-Norwood. Montezuma County roads that will be used include Road 31 and Road W. Logging trucks will travel down Dunlap Hill and onto 11th Street in Dolores, then on to Colorado Highway 145.

Pending final approval, timber harvesting is planned for the Boggy Draw area north of Dolores beginning in 2023. (Courtesy of San Juan National Forest)

The Boggy Draw area has an extensive motorized and non-motorized trail network popular with hikers, mountain bikers, horses, ATVs and motorcyclists. Public comments expressed concern about logging impacts on trails. Temporary trail closures, reroutes and detours are expected once logging begins.

According to project plans, once harvest operations begin in either the Boggy Draw or Turkey Knoll treatment blocks, an information station would be set up at the Boggy Draw trailhead.

Information, including maps, trail locations and more, would also be available at local bike shops, Dolores Chamber of Commerce, businesses in Cortez and Dolores, the Southwest Colorado Cycling Association and on the San Juan National Forest’s Facebook page.

Logging in the Salter Vegetation Management plan “will not all take place at the same time,” said David Casey, a forester with the San Juan National Forest.

Typically, areas are worked one at a time to limit disruption in the forest. Specific harvesting blocks range from less than 500 acres to 2,000 acres, which are broken down into 200-acre units. Logging the subunits usually takes between six to eight weeks, then the area is restored and public access restored.

Salter project changes based on comments

After a project review of public comments and concerns, adjustments were made to the final draft, Padilla said in an interview. Some of the changes made include:

  • When timber activity operations are suspended for two weeks or more, trails and roads that are closed within that unit will be reopened, unless safety concerns cannot be mitigated.
  • In the event that a decrease in tree density results in easier access to dispersed camping sites beyond what is allowed by Forest Service regulations, barriers such as boulders will be installed to control the expansion of dispersed camp sites.
  • No harvest activities or hauling will be allowed in Recreation Compartments 1 to 4 on the annual Boggy Draw Beat Down mountain bike race day. From 12 a.m. the day of the event to 12:01 a.m. the next day in early August. No hauling will be allowed on Escalante Days in August, the Dolores River Festival and Ride of the Ancients Gravel Grinder in June, and the Dolores Harvest Festival and Car Show in October.
  • Where haul routes create long-term impacts to system trails or they cannot be reclaimed to single-track condition, opportunities for trail reroutes will be analyzed.
  • Sections of trails will remain open for use if detours via system roads are available. If timber operations (harvesting and hauling) do not pose a safety risk to users of trails within an active sale unit, the trail will remain open.
  • Measures to protect winter grooming operations will be considered during the implementation checklist process.
  • There will be a protocol to preserve and identify old-growth/pre-settlement trees based on visual characteristics, which has been shown to be a reliable method.
  • There will be added Adaptive Management Action to address issues that may arise from excessive speed. If excessive speed of logging trucks becomes an issue, contracts can be adjusted to ensure compliance.
  • There will be added Adaptive Management Action to address issues with regard to If traffic issues arise on the Dolores-Norwood Road or through the town of Dolores, they will be addressed.
Impacts to recreation addressed

San Juan National Forest recreation planner Tom Rice and Padilla said the agency carefully analyzed the effects on recreation at Boggy Draw and plan for mitigation measures.

Rice said logging zones were dropped or adjusted away from the more interesting trail features with unique views or geologic features.

For trails within or near logging areas, there will be an effort to leave trees along an 18-foot corridor of the trail to maintain scenic qualities.

Forest planners emphasized that the Boggy Draw motorized and non-motorized trail system will overall remain open during the life of the project. Logging will be selective thinning, not clear cutting, and it will not happen all at once.

The Boggy Draw portion of the project will be divided into six logging recreation compartments that will be harvested one at a time in order to keep the remaining trails open as much as possible, Rice said.

A separate analysis is being conducted on temporary reroutes and detours of trails for each logging block.

Also as part of the plan, timber machinery would be required to avoid trails to prevent damage.

The Boggy Draw area is also popular for dispersed camping. Some timber harvest treatment units were eliminated along the main Boggy Draw road to protect the many dispersed camping sites there, Rice said.

Dispersed camping areas on the arterial roads farther from the main road will see timber harvest activity to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risk.

Expect more truck traffic

Logging traffic will increase in the project area, including in Boggy Draw and in Dolores.

According to the plan, hauling will be allowed throughout the year, except for 10 holidays and special events, including during the Escalante Days festival and Boggy Beat Down bike race.

Log hauling could also be restricted when certain conditions exist, Padilla said. For example, during the spring thaw, if logging roads do not dry or freeze overnight, hauling would be delayed because road conditions would be too soft for truck travel.

Padilla said based on the harvest season and timber industry practices, logging traffic is not expected to be yearlong.

Dolores will see more log truck traffic coming down the Dolores-Norwood Road, County Road 31, 11th Street and Colorado Highway 145.

Based on similar projects in the forest, officials expect an average of nine loaded logging trucks going through the town of Dolores per day during the harvest season. The estimated traffic is an average; on some days, there will be no trucks, on others, there could be more than nine per day.

There will be temporary displacement of wildlife when logging is occurring, said Ivan Messinger, wildlife biologist for the San Juan National Forest. Timing restrictions are in place to protect critical big game habitat, he said.

Areas designated as critical elk winter range and for elk calving will not have logging operations between Dec. 1 and April 30.

Larger-scale commercial logging is seen as essential for the San Juan National Forest to thin out overstocked forests susceptible to disease, insect infestation, effects of drought and large wildfires.

Logging increasing in area

The San Juan National Forest timber program has become “pretty active” in the past few years, and the proposed Salter project is a continuation of that, Padilla said during a meeting with Dolores town officials Jan. 11.

An increase in local mills and logging operations opens up more opportunity to improve forest health through timber harvesting, forest officials say.

In addition to a collection of modestly sized, local wood product company and mills, the region also includes larger companies equipped for higher capacity, including Aspen Wall Wood, Aspen Wood Products, Ironwood and Montrose Forest Products.

The Dolores District of the San Juan National Forest went from selling 24,000 hundred cubic feet of timber on an annual basis to about 60,000 hundred cubic feet annually, Padilla said.

“(The Salter) project is an effort to reduce stocking and increase resilience and health of ponderosa pine stands to create a more natural forest,” Padilla said. “Our attempt is to maintain forest stand health so we do not lose it to wildfire, beetle kill, or disease.”

jmimiaga@the-journal.com