Community Agriculture Alliance: Spring snowpack could mean many things for Routt National Forest

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While it still is too early to tell what will come from the current above-average snowpack in the Yampa River Basin, it could mean many things for the Routt National Forest’s resources and visitors in the coming months.

Community Agriculture Alliance

This weekly column about agriculture issues is written by area farmers, ranchers and policymakers. It publishes on Fridays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.

Impacts on the coming fire season, the timing of opening roads and recreation facilities, and potential benefits to natural resources recovering from persistent regional drought conditions all will be influenced in some way by late-season snowpack.

“Record-breaking” is how the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service described the 175 percent of average snowpack in the Yampa River Basin on May 1, 2011. Such heavy late-season snowpack resulted in delayed openings of forest roads and campgrounds as well as an essentially absent fire season.

Conditions were a stark contrast just one year later, with only 17 percent of average snowpack on May 1, 2012. This, of course, was the year that Colorado and Wyoming experienced significant fire seasons, including four large fires in the Medicine Bow National Forest.

Although above-average spring snowpack is favorable for the Routt National Forest’s 2014 fire season, it still is early and conditions can change rapidly between now and the start of the season, which typically begins in late June.

As of April 2, the NRCS was reporting snowpack in the Yampa and White River Basins at 127 percent of average.

By comparison, these basins were at 78 percent of average on April 1, 2013, before recovering with above average April snowfall to about 99 percent of average by May 1.

Last year turned out to be a below-average fire season in the Routt National Forest.

While the numbers are interesting, the only thing that is certain is that Mother Nature apparently holds the ultimate wild card when it comes to predicting late-season snowpack and impacts on fire season.

Fire managers and meteorologists at this point are saying that snowpack has minimized any concern for an early start to the fire season and that a repeat of a season like we experienced in 2012 is unlikely.

Based on early indicators, projections are for 2014 to be an average to slightly below average fire season across the Rocky Mountain Area. Visit http://gacc.nifc.gov/rmcc/predictive/outlooks.html for more predictive information about the coming fire season.

In addition to above-average, late-season snowpack reducing the likelihood of an early and potentially severe fire season, it will aid in drought recovery. This ultimately will benefit many natural resources including soil, vegetation and various wildlife species. It also will benefit many uses such as domestic livestock grazing, whitewater rafting and water storage.

Overall, there is a lot of upside to above-average snowpack; however, it also likely will come at the expense of limited early-season access to some higher elevation forest roads and recreation facilities.

Access may be limited as a result of roads simply being impassable from deep snow, possible travel restrictions to protect excessively wet roadbeds or even localized flooding.

To avoid being endangered by fast-moving water, forest visitors are reminded not to drive or walk across streams during spring runoff. Additionally, motorists are encouraged to avoid driving across washed-out portions of roads and to notify the local ranger district of these areas. Minor washouts may be an indicator of a larger looming problem from plugged drainage culverts.

For the latest information on road and recreation access, or to report road problems, contact your local Routt National Forest Ranger District Office in Steamboat Springs, 925 Weiss Drive, 970-870-2299; Walden, 100 Main St., 970-723-2703; or Yampa, 300 Roselawn Ave., 970-638-4516.

You also can visit our website at http://fs.usda.gov/mbr, or follow the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland on Twitter, @MBRNFsTBNG.

Larry Sandoval is the public affairs officer for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests.

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