Fuels reductions in northwest Colorado – Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds are protecting public lands
Brittany Sprout, Public Affairs Specialist
If you find yourself in northwest Colorado, you may come across some of BLM’s most popular wild horse herds, world-class recreation opportunities, and public lands as far as the eye can see. While these public lands are beautiful, they are also susceptible to catastrophic wildfires due to several years of drought, overpopulation from wild horses, and impacts from climate change. With the help of BIL funding, BLM is working to improve public lands and create resilient landscapes for generations to come.
West of Meeker, you can explore the Piceance Basin. You can find wildlife, rare or endangered plants, and Colorado’s largest wild horse herd in the area. BLM has spent several years reducing the herd to the appropriate management level while also facing the impacts of drought on the health of public land. Since 2021, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and Disaster Relief funding have been used to treat 1,346 acres on Centerfield and Pitcher’s Mound through mastication. Mastication is an alternative to prescribed burns and can be used to reduce fuels in areas where controlled fires pose too much risk. Vegetation is mechanically reduced to small chunks, like mulch. Removal of young trees or bushes allows the remaining vegetation to grow stronger and healthier, while reducing the available fuels that could burn during a wildfire. Treated areas provide critical breaks in fuels that can help slow the spread of wildfire.
The Piceance Basin covers approximately 190,000 acres, managed by BLM. The scale of the basin makes trail or road maintenance difficult and hinders evacuations during emergency situations. BIL funding was used to improve several roads to improve safety during wildfires. BLM will also continue to invest more BIL funding to treat over 1,000 acres over the next two years. Fuels reductions improve the ecosystem, increase public land resiliency against catastrophic wildfires, provide safer experiences for the public, and help keep our wild horse herds healthy on the range.
Near Dinosaur National Monument, Douglas Mountain provides a rare experience for birders! This ponderosa pine forest offers the only place in Colorado to view the Pygmy Nuthatch and Western Bluebird, along with other wildlife such as deer and elk. The BLM has been prioritizing protection of the native ponderosa stand on Douglas Mountain by piling and burning hazardous fuels below the ponderosa pines. Removal of smaller vegetation will decrease the chance of a wildfire spreading higher into the trees using “ladder” fuels to create more intense fires.
Wildlife in the area will benefit from the removal of hazardous fuels and create a stronger ecosystem supported by native plants. BLM has treated 575 acres over the last two years on Douglas Mountain. BIL funding will be used to continue treatments over the next few years through mastication, thinning, piling, and prescribed fire.
BLM also used BIL funding to support the Routt County Wildfire Mitigation Council (RCWM) through a cooperative agreement. The agreement started a chipping program in Routt County and implement fuels treatment plans designed to protect Steamboat Springs from catastrophic wildfire. Chipping allows homeowners to remove hazardous fuels from their property, which can create fuel breaks to prevent wildfires from reaching homes. The chipping program allowed 113 homeowners to create defensible space around their homes.
The BLM also worked with RCWM to identify areas along Emerald Mountain to create fuel breaks. Emerald Mountain is adjacent to several subdivisions in Steamboat Springs that are vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires. The fuel breaks will make it more difficult for wildfires to reach properties, give homeowners more time to evacuate safely, and generally slow down the speed and size of a large wildfire. BLM plans to continue fuels treatments on Emerald Mountain in 2024.