In between, the La Sal Mountain Loop Road winds past pinyon-juniper woodlands that didn’t exist a generation ago, according to Manti-La Sal National Forest wildlife biologist Barb Smith.
Denser vegetation in other areas near the road has increased the fire risk to newer homes on the range’s western slopes. But it won’t be there for much longer, if the Forest Service signs off on a plan to minimize the potential for a high-severity wildfire to occur.
The agency’s Moab Ranger District is currently reviewing a proposal to mechanically thin and hand-prune junipers and pinyon pines on 2,350 acres across an 8,300-acre project area, which runs from Brumley Creek to Jimmy Keen Flat.
“The whole idea is to reduce fuels and the buildup of fuels so that we would have a better chance of fighting fires,” Smith said.
Most of the thinning work would take place along the loop road, around 15 to 20 privately owned inholdings and in areas of thick vegetation.
Under its preferred alternative, the agency is also proposing more limited herbicide treatments of Gambel oak trees at two smaller sites. But conservation group Grand Canyon Trust is hoping the Forest Service will reconsider that plan, based on concerns about the effects the chemicals could have on vegetation and groundwater quality.
“It’s one that we think would be a very unwise choice,” Grand Canyon Trust Utah Forests Program Director Mary O’Brien said.
Smith said that her office will be taking the public’s concerns about that issue and others into consideration as it continues to review the West Slope Wildland-Urban Interface Fuels Reduction Project proposal.
At this stage, the Forest Service is still working on a draft Environmental Assessment of the project; a final decision isn’t expected until fall.
“October would be the soonest that we would be able to start the work,” Smith said.
By that time, at least two years will have gone by since the Forest Service held its first public scoping meeting on the project, according to Smith.
Since then, Forest Service officials have met with area homeowners, and many of them have embraced the agency’s proposal, according to Smith.
“It sounds like a lot of them want to do similar work on their own properties,” she said.
While fuels reduction projects in other parts of the American West haven’t always been an easy sell, Smith said that property owners in the La Sals are well aware of what could happen if the Forest Service does nothing.
“There are concerns, especially after the Porcupine Ranch Fire,” Smith said.
That 2008 fire charred more than 3,000 acres, and in order to prevent similar incidents within the west slope project area, the Forest Service is proposing to create fire breaks along the route.
Smith said the work will also enhance wildlife habitat, while protecting the Mill Creek and North Fork Mill Creek watersheds from the kind of severe erosion that affected Pinhook Valley and Castle Valley following the Porcupine Ranch Fire.
O’Brien, however, does not believe the Forest Service should have to bear the costly burden of protecting private homes in the area.
As an alternative, Grand Canyon Trust is suggesting that the agency should limit mechanical thinning work to areas within 300 feet of private inholdings and key escape routes.
“In this case, I think that the real alternative is if the private landowners are wanting to protect their properties, they really need to treat their own properties,” O’Brien said. “That is the best insurance for their property. It’s better than anything that the Forest Service can do.”
Grand Canyon Trust’s main concern, however, is the agency’s plan to treat Gambel oaks with tebuthiuron.
Under the current proposal, the agency would treat up to 350 acres, creating gaps of one to three acres in size, and up to 10 acres at a 49-acre area surrounding the Bald Mesa communications site.
“[The proposed use of tebuthiuron] has been the biggest thing that some people are concerned about,” Smith said.
If the treatment plan is approved, Smith said the herbicide use would be limited to one-time applications of tebuthiuron.
Herbicide pellets would be hand-applied directly under each Gambel oak’s “drip line,” and Smith said crews would take care to avoid other nearby trees, shrubs or plants. Site-specific soil conditions and slope grades would also be taken into account, Smith said.
“It [would be] very targeted on one- to three-acre patches where we have very scrubby oak,” she said.
O’Brien said that even one-time tebuthiuron applications could have enduring effects on the surrounding environment.
“[It has] been designed to be a long-lasting herbicide so that it doesn’t break down, and it doesn’t decompose,” she said. “It can be active for three, four years.”
Tebuthiuron also shuts down a plant’s ability to photosynthesize. However, it doesn’t specifically target any one species, and O’Brien said that native plants, grasses and forbs would be susceptible to the chemical.
“It doesn’t matter what the plant is,” O’Brien said. “All plants photosynthesize, so it kills all plants it comes into contact with.”
Grand Canyon Trust is also concerned that the herbicide and other unspecified chemicals could seep into the aquifer. In addition to the main component, it contains inert ingredients, such as adhesives or moisture repellants, that herbicide manufacturers are not required to report.
“So what else would be getting into the groundwater is unknown,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien is ultimately hopeful that the Forest Service will settle on another plan, and she credited the agency for taking a closer look at proposals that differ considerably from its original plans.
“I congratulate the Forest Service in considering the alternatives that aren’t necessarily theirs,” O’Brien said. “I think they do a good job of communicating with people about what they’re doing and what they’re proposing, and it’s a good process.”