Castle Valley Comments

The Bureau of Land Management is planning a Castle Valley wildfire mitigation project for the southwestern end of Castle Valley. According to a draft provided by the BLM, the area will extend from the edge of the incorporated town to the land managed by the U.S. Forest Service on the southeast end of the project.

The project area includes lands owned by multiple private landowners, BLM, USFS, private and Utah Open Lands.

The BLM will create a fuel break for Castle Valley by reducing juniper encroachment on the southwest end of the valley on BLM lands. This project will have a secondary purpose to improve mule deer and elk habitat through juniper reduction.

There are several needs for the project according to the document: decrease the potential threat of destructive wildfire adjacent to the community, and to increase and improve crucial Mule Deer winter range habitat. Other considerations include reducing the threat to sagebrush habitat by the encroachment of pinyon pine and Utah juniper in the area. Another negative impact on the watershed from pinyon/juniper encroachment is soil erosion. Removing the trees will allow grasses and forbs to expand and decrease the speed of water-flow and the size of soil particles that can be transported.

Apparently there has been some confusion among residents about the project, and Jason Kirks, the fuels program manager for the BLM, tried to clear things up with an email to the interested parties. He wrote: “I assure you all that my Fire/Fuels Program has no hidden agenda; we (myself and staff) have been diligently working to put together a thoughtful and acceptable fire mitigation project for the community of Castle Valley.”

He indicated that he met originally with residents of the upper section of the valley to survey its dimensions.

At that time he said that they would be looking at a much larger project area than the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) concept of a small shaded fuel break. He visited the area several times and was surprised with the tree density and concerned about the fire threat.

His fuels team met with residents in December to discuss the project design and implementation methods.

Originally, Kirks said, the BLM concept for the project was upwards of 4,000 acres incorporating the east side of the valley with treatment methods of bullhog and herbicide.

After the meeting, the fuels team scaled the project down to 1,433 acres and utilized a bullhog (mechanical) and herbicide. Herbicide was eliminated due to sole source aquifer status and the bullhog was removed due to possible cheatgrass invasion to the project site.

The shaded fuel break concept adjacent to the valley was added in and expanded south to be of adequate size to slow down a large wildfire. Kirks said the entire 1,433 acre area will be a shaded fuel break with six cleared patches equaling 334 acres to break up fuel continuity and mimic natural clearings that would be created by small wildfires.

He stated that the government shutdown complicated matters and he had very limited time to put together the presentation for Castle Valley on Feb. 7, but he felt it was important to share this information with the community in a timely manner. He said that he felt the presentation went very well and those in attendance understood the project design and approach.

The following week another resident came to him with concerns about pinyon, juniper and cheatgrass and they resolved those issues by keeping mixed-aged class diversity within pinyon pine so the project will specify to take more juniper and leave behind more pinyon, especially large pinyon. “As you can see,” Kirks said, “our fuels team has strived to address concerns and come to a middle ground for a well-rounded yet beneficial wildfire mitigation project.”

To inform project design, the fuels team has utilized vegetation data, current imagery, historic imagery (1937 to present), crown fire modeling, fire probability modeling and vegetation condition class.

The project funding for fiscal year 2020, which begins July 1, will come from the Watershed Restoration Initiative (WRI) and the application was originally due Jan. 11 but was extended until Feb. 8 due to the government shutdown. WRI is an inter-agency collaboration and the proposal process is a lengthy database system requiring detailed information about the requested project.

For the Castle Valley project, several other agencies were also invited including the State Division of Forest, Fire, and State Lands, United States Forest Service and Utah Open Lands. At this time, the project is still a proposal and has not been granted any funding but they should know by May if the funding has been approved.

The current tree density is 308 trees per acre. Based on these numbers they are looking at thinning 85 percent of juniper trees within the size range of 1-8 inches in diameter and pinyon 1-4 inches in diameter; all trees above eight inches will be left. Overall the entire project area will have a mix of tree sizes and an overall reduction of 50 to 70 percent. The BLM is planning a meeting and field trip on April 30 at 10 a.m. for people interested in the project.