Horse Gulch Blog

Watchdogging for the greater Durango area

31 Jan 2013

This blogger’s comments on the Draft Horse Gulch Open Space Management Plan

Posted by Adam Howell


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Dear Natural Lands Preservation Advisory Board,

Wildland firefighter Brian Del Santo lays down fire in a pinon/ juniper fuel type in Texas.

Wildland firefighter Brian Del Santo lays down fire in a pinon/ juniper fuel type in Texas.

My comments on the Draft Horse Gulch Open Space Management Plan are directed specifically towards number four under the specific management policies (V., page 3) in the document.

Among the uses and activities that the Draft Plan prohibits on the property are fires of any kind, which, for a rural landscape, brings the question as to which kinds of fires are specifically prohibited.

If the Draft Plan is talking about the prohibition of campfires in order to prevent fire rings and the harvesting of firewood, that is one reason behind the land management policy.

If the prohibition also includes prescribed fires or naturally started fires for resource benefit, then what is the logic behind such a short-sighted, broad-encompassing fire management policy?

We know from historical perspective that the policy of excluding and suppressing all wildfires on rural landscapes can lead to the build up of volatile fuel loading that when later ignited, can be difficult to control and have severe impacts to both the forest ecosystem, as well as local communities.

Fire can be used to safely reduce fuel loading in Horse Gulch through the practices of either broadcast burning—laying fire broadly underneath live oak or timber stands—or through pile burning, which fire managers often do after piling up the slash in to manageable piles from hand thinning an area with chainsaws and letting it cure for several weeks.

Afterwards, fire managers will wait for the right weather conditions to light the piles, such as a few inches of snowfall, where the risk of fire carrying through ground fuels outside of the slash piles is minimal.

Most recently in our community, the BLM completed a successful pile burning project on Animas City Mountain using these same tactics.

If hand thinning followed by pile burning is used as a means to controlling fuel loading, the weeds would need to soon after be suppressed on those pile burn scars, due to the increased susceptibility of exotic thistles taking root there.

This fire for resource benefit provided a valuable service of reducing the fuel loading in this mixed conifer forest.

This fire for resource benefit provided a valuable service of reducing the fuel loading in this mixed conifer forest.

Speaking subjectively from the past 10 years of fire management experience, the post effect of using broadcast burning as a means of controlling fuel loading in Horse Gulch could be more aesthetically pleasing than mechanical treatments for such a highly-trafficked area. I think that lands treated with fire usually look better immediately following the treatment than those done with hydro axes or masticators, which tend to leave broken branches hung up in trees, excessive soil disturbances from the tires or tracks on the masticator, and frayed scrub oak stubs sticking out of the ground.

Mastication is the process of using heavy mobile machinery to basically grind up brush and trees into mulch while simultaneously spreading it across the landscape violently.

We also know that wildfire has the ability to introduce nitrogen back into the soil more quickly than mastication, while also increasing the pH there, thus increasing the availability of calcium in the soil as a means of improving its fertility.

Plus, the anticipation of fungus being able to quickly utilize and brake down activity fuels following mastication treatments was disproven by research technicians at Northern Arizona University.

Humans have suppressed fire on this landscape quite possibly for about the past 100 years, with little benefit to the long-term ecological health of Horse Gulch. While humans with their surrounding structures and properties may have benefited from the suppression of wildfires on this landscape, the exact opposite effect can be seen for the health of wildlife, vegetation and soils that exist there.

For example, allowing a controlled or naturally started wildfire to punch a mosaic of holes in the pinon/juniper forest canopy can increase edge habitat for wildlife by providing sunny openings for native grasses and wild flowers to grow, thus increasing the biodiversity across the landscape.

In summary, I think that the policy of prohibiting fires of any kind, as stated in the Draft Plan, should be eliminated or at least changed to only prohibit campfires.

Thank You,

Adam Howell

Horse Gulch Blog LLC

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