A new wildfire risk-assessment group has formed to minimize impacts on the Upper Dolores River watershed and McPhee Reservoir.
The goal is to identify valuable areas at high risk for wildfire damage, then develop and implement mitigation projects. Possible plans include more thinning, prescribed burns, and timber harvesting.
“We want to be proactive and work to avoid the severe impacts like those that seen at Vallecito Reservoir” from the Missionary Ridge Fire, said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. “They took a huge hit with debris after the fire.”
Controlling wildfire risks above the reservoir is critical, he said, because the Dolores River and McPhee are depended on by area towns and the region’s agriculture economy.
The coalition includes representatives from the Forest Service, Dolores Water Conservancy District, Montezuma County, Colorado State Forests, Dolores Fire District, Firewise of Montezuma County, the timber industry, Darlene Marcus from U.S. Rep Scott Tipton’s office, San Juan Citizens Alliance and Mountain Studies Institute.
The target area is the West Fork and Upper Dolores River Valley and up to Lizard Head Pass, a mix of federal land, private land, state land.
The watershed boundary could be expanded to include the Lower Dolores River to the Dove Creek pump station, the domestic water supply for Dove Creek.
So far, four meetings have been held to develop a specific strategy for wildfire mitigation. The coalition is still coming up with an official name.
Initial goals listed include:
Protect the Dolores River, McPhee Reservoir, lives and private property, and infrastructure such as bridges, roads, and water delivery systems.
Demonstrate that a healthy ecosystem and health economy are compatible goals.
Use best management practices to assist industry in scaling up timber harvesting and processing, including use of small-diameter material, and utilization of low-value materials.
Enable management projects to reduce extent of high-severity wildfires.
Prepare for potential outcomes of a “catalyzing event” such as severe wildfire, and post-fire erosion and flooding.
The Upper Dolores Valley is mostly made up of aspen, ponderosa and spruce fir. It was noted that thinning mitigation and commercial logging in the area is a challenge because of remote, rough terrain, steep slopes and a limited local market for timber.
Locally, niche markets for aspen do well, and there is a local firewood market for ponderosa and oak. But small trees and the lack of a local mill limit demand for timber in general.
Forester Norm Bircher, of Montrose Forest Products, operates the nearest large mill in the area. He urged forest management that promotes more age diversity and class, and suggested reducing dense mature stands in the Dolores Valley at risk for spruce beetle infestation.
“The market is determined by what (timber) becomes available,” he said. “If it is economical to do something, it will get purchased and processed.”
The group plans to create an inventory and GIS map of high value resources and assets in the Upper Dolores watershed.
Then the plan is to implement a wildfire demonstration project.
“My sense is there is some low hanging fruit for a pilot project,” said facilitator Rebecca Samulski, of Firewise. “We want to line up the partnerships and monitoring.”
Funding for the program is needed, and could come from a $25 million pot of federal money earmarked for essential fire mitigation projects that cross state, federal and private lands.
The next meeting for the watershed group is scheduled for March 9 at 10 a.m. in the DWCD office.