Aspen regeneration has been a focus on Fishlake National Forest for several years, but starting in December officials are going to tackle another issue on the forest — pinion and juniper.
However, the aspen restoration project is still going strong.
Currently a crew is working on taking down Engelmann Spruce trees on a portion of Monroe Mountain. The trees are being taken out to help protect private property from a future control burn, but also to assist in the ongoing restoration project, said Fish Lake District Ranger Jason Kling.
“People ask why we don’t do more cutting and less burning,” Kling said. The logging of Engelmann Spruce is one area where logging makes sense for the forest.
“The problem is in Utah our trees grow slow, they’re small and crooked,” Kling said. He said most species of trees in the region are not desirable for logging companies.
However, the Engelmann Spruce is an exception — and happens to be found in a few areas included in the aspen restoration project.
The logging effort is an approximately $3 million project and a two-year contract.
While logging is helping address the forest needs, it’s not enough, Kling said.
“The forest depends on disturbance,” Kling said. Fire researchers have said prior to European settlement of the American continent, wildfires were much more common — burning areas every 18 to 60 years. However, in the past century and a half, wildfires haven’t been allowed to do their work. Kling said if the Forest Service were to treat the entire forest on a rotation of 18 to 60 years, it would have to burn or cut approximately 40,000 acres a year.
Last fiscal year was the largest yet for treatment on Fishlake, and it had 30,000 acres treated, Kling said.
Without the natural fires, ecological changes have been allowed to occur, which hurt the health of the Fishlake National Forest.
“Probably any forest in the country is in a similar situation,” Kling said. He said the goal of treating the forest, with fire, logging or mechanical means, is to restore the natural balance.
Aspen depends on heat to activate its roots and trigger regeneration. It is also a source of forage for animals that conifers do not provide.
“Conifers have their place, but they are out-competing the aspen for water and nutrients,” Kling said. He said as large conifers grow; they even shield aspen from the sun, which is also detrimental to the species.
The next most visible step in the process is a planned fire near Annabella Reservoir.
“It’s going to look huge,” Kling said. Similar to other steps in the aspen restoration project, the prescribed fire is designed to reduce conifer competition and stimulate new aspen sprouting.
Additionally, through the use of prescribed burning, hazardous fuel accumulations will be reduced, which in turn reduces the risk to life, property and natural resources.
The fire will be ignited using aerial and/or hand ignition over approximately 800 acres, approximately nine miles southeast of Richfield on Cove Mountain.
“We’re going to have a lot of scientists here studying the fire,” Kling said. Research scientists associated with the Fire and Smoke Model Evaluation Experiment will be onsite taking measurements, including pre- and post-fire fuels inventories, ground and aerial-based light detection and ranging, infrared sensors, fire hardened cameras, heat measuring instruments, weather balloons and smoke-sampling packages mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles or drones.
The group will be studying everything it can about the fire, Kling said.
The data gathered from these burns will be used to advance fire and smoke modeling systems.
The Annabella Reservoir prescribed fire is pending the correct weather conditions, Kling said.
“This time of year, our burn windows are really small,” Kling said.
The lessons learned so far in the aspen restoration project aren’t just limited to scientific monitoring. The next big issue the Forest Service is planning to tackle is the expansion of pinion and juniper.
Similar to how conifers can choke out aspen, pinion and juniper — affectionately known as PJ — can do the same to sagebrush and grasses, Kling said.
PJ expansion is resulting in the loss of a lot of valuable forage for animals, Kling said. It is also contributing to more and faster erosion on forestlands.
“Rather than go through the NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] process for 3,000 acres here and 3,000 acres there, we’re going to do it for the entire forest all at once,” Kling said. He said the process has been underway for several years, and tentatively a decision on the plan is to be signed Dec. 9.
With the environmental review for all 1.8 million acres of the forest complete for the PJ project, work would then be able to be completed.
“Pinion and juniper have their place,” Kling said. Typically the trees grow on rocky outcroppings and cliffs. In the past several decades, the PJ species have expanded into grass and sagebrush.
The project, which will also take many years to complete, will also be a mixture of mechanical treatments, prescribed fires and even cutting down of trees by hand.