Yampa The Yampa Ranger District has been honored with the Regional Forester's Ranger District of the Year award, beating out U.S. Forest Service districts in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Officials said the honor is in large part due to the district's fuels reduction and bark beetle mitigation efforts.
"It's a big honor for us," said District Ranger Oscar Martinez. "It's like being recognized by your peers."
Last year, the district engaged in heavy fuels reduction projects - to limit the spread of potential wildfires - near Indian Run, and focused on mitigating bark beetle infestation across its lands, especially in the hard-hit Gore Pass area.
The Yampa Ranger District also completed its Community Wildlife Protection Plan in 2007, addressing concerns in Stagecoach and Morrison Creek, where continued residential growth is encroaching upon the district's lands.
The Yampa Ranger District has been managing 400,000 acres on the southern end of the Routt National Forest since the district was established by the Colorado Conservation Corps in the 1930s, according to Diann Ritschard, public affairs specialist for the Forest Service.
The district's 16 full-time staff members range in expertise from wildlife biology to zone archaeology, but the team comes together for Forest Service projects in the area, including the rangers' efforts to mitigate the bark beetle epidemic roaring through Northwest Colorado, Martinez said.
"The district as a team had to mobilize itself and work toward finding a reasonable solution," Martinez said. "Even though the bulk of the implementation is just starting, we've been planning for years."
To prevent the geographic spread of bark beetles, the district has originally focused on preventative thinning, but the beetle epidemic is now so large-scale that the strategy has been rendered ineffective, Martinez said.
The Williams Fork area is the bull's-eye of the beetle epidemic in Northwest Colorado, and the forests in the Yampa Ranger District are the next ring out, Martinez said.
"When you have this kind of epidemic, and you have a concentrated area, it tends to grow faster than it should," Martinez said. "When we look at our stands, three years into this epidemic, we're seeing areas that have 80 percent mortality - in some areas, higher than 90 percent of the large, mature trees."
The speed and intensity with which the beetles have been moving through the forest has made mitigation and prevention difficult because of uncharacteristic behavior, Martinez said. Bark beetles normally target mature trees only and leave younger ones untouched.
"There's so many beetles," he said. "They can't survive on the younger trees, but they're killing them."
While lodgepole pine forests are fire- and disturbance-dependent, the large-scale tree mortality and forest damage has produced threats that reach beyond the trees themselves, Martinez said. The Yampa Ranger District has been working on a hazards reduction analysis, identifying trees that threaten roadways or pose a danger at campgrounds and recreation areas, and acquiring the environmental clearances to remove them before they fall, he said.
The accelerated rate of tree mortality has created additional work in keeping roads and trails clear, which is particularly taxing in the Yampa Ranger District's designated wilderness areas, where rangers are forbidden from using chainsaws and must cut and dispose of trees the old-fashioned way, Martinez said.
A major focus of the district in recent years has been fuels reduction, not only for fire prevention and protection of soils and watersheds, but also to allow the Forest Service to recoup any value in remaining in the dead timber before it goes to waste, Martinez said.
The Yampa Ranger District, in collaboration with the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, has engaged in the Rock Creek Integrated Management Project, covering 70,000 acres of forest between Yampa and Kremmling that have been hit hardest by bark beetles, Ritschard said.
Planning efforts currently are concentrated in a 56,000-acre area near Red Dirt, on the Kremmling side of the forest, Martinez said. With snowfall limiting much of the rangers' fieldwork, the staff does much of its annual project planning in the fall and winter months, for implementation in the summer, he said.
Last year, the district sold four times its annual timber average in the Rock Creek project area, according to Ritschard. In total, the rangers completed 1,500 acres of fuels reduction in their district in 2007. The Gore Range will continue to be logged heavily, Martinez said.
After the snow melts, the Yampa Ranger District will plant seedlings in beetle-kill areas to get a jump on natural regrowth and help "initiate the new forest," Martinez said.
"Forests have always had beetles - the challenge is how do you manage it, in light of all the social pressures and the requirements that we expect of the forests," Martinez said.
In 2007, the Yampa Ranger District also completed a fuels reduction and wildlife habitat improvement assessment in the Indian Run area on the west side of the district, in coordination with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Habitat Partnership Program, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Department of Wildlife, Ritschard said.
Indian Run still is one of the Yampa Ranger District's largest targets for prescribed burns, and the staff is awaiting cooperative weather conditions to continue their work there, Martinez said.
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