Project aims to cut fire risk, improve wildfire habitat in Ephraim Canyon
By Robert Stevens
EPHRAIM CANYON—As wildfires in California wreak havoc on the land, a cooperative effort in Utah is working towards reducing risk of wildfire, improving watershed health and protecting animal habitats.
The Willow Fuels Project aims to treat approximately 6,300 acres along the Ephraim Canyon Watershed. The project is a long term solution to improving the area’s health, but will not happen overnight, says Nels Rasmussen, an assistant fuels management officer for the north zone of the Manti-La Sal National Forest.
“Historically speaking, before people came out west, fire was a natural part of the environment,” Rasmussen says. “Now that we all live here, and have houses and roads and powerlines, so for the last hundred years or so we have been suppressing fires, because we don’t want homes to burn up and people to get hurt. We’ve gotten really good at putting out fires, but because we’ve been putting them out for so long, it has led to a major buildup of hazardous fuels, which is how we get these big, giant fires you see happening, like the ones in California.”
The project has a goal of returning balance to the area that nature would have once maintained itself through the cycle of healthy wildfire and regrowth. Since human developments interfered with that natural process and fire suppression became a more common thing, Rasmussen says the natural balance of the land has been tipped, creating a need for restoration to improve health and prevent future disaster.
The catalyst for the project, as well as others going on across the state with a similar model, is the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative (WRI), a partnership between organizations such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), The Manti-La Sal National Forest and others. Even private landowners and conservation groups are taking part in the partnership to improve Utah.
The goal of the WRI is to improve high priority watersheds throughout the state.
“Every one of the watershed drainages in these canyons in Sanpete feed a town its water,” Rasmussen says. “So you can see how important it is to keep them healthy.”
The cooperation between the various organizations involved made possible through WRI is unprecedented in Utah, and a powerful tool to accomplish projects like the Willow Fuels Project, says Sanpete District Ranger Johnny Collins.
“Fires don’t respect boundaries,” Collins says. “With WRI, we can address the treatment over the full landscape, and not just have to work within our individual boundaries. The collaboration allows us to magnify our efforts.”
Collins says treating a landscape means jumping back and forth across various territories, including BLM land, national forest land and even private land (with permission from the owners).
“That’s really what shared stewardship is all about,” Collins says.
The first of three main goals for the project is restoring the right vegetation to the area to reduce bad fuels on the mountain and encourage the healthy growth of good trees, especially Aspen.
“There are a lot of good things about Aspen,” Rasmussen says. “They’re excellent for watershed health because they hold water and are fire resistant. They are also an excellent habitat for wildlife.”
By restoring the Aspen population, and reducing other, less beneficial fuels, such as conifers, the project will mitigate wildfire risk, due to Aspen’s fire resistance, but it will also provide a better habitat for animals such as deer, elk, moose golden eagles, and even fish and amphibians, says DWR habitat restoration biologist Robby Edgel, who is collaborating in the project specifically to help improve biological diversity and protect animal habitats.
“Aspen is phenomenal for foraging,” Edgel says. “It produces, on average, more than 60 times as much foraging for animals as conifers.”
Edgel says the importance of watershed health cannot be emphasized enough when it comes to maintaining healthy biological diversity in an area. By creating a healthier landscape in the Willow Fuels Project area, the dangers of a raging, out-of-control wildfire are dramatically reduced, thus reducing risk to the animal habitat, as well as private land and developments in the Ephraim Canyon area.
“Whatever we can do to mitigate that risk is worth whatever we have to pay,” Edgel says.
The Willow Fuels Project is accomplishing its goal through a combination of removing bad or excess vegetation through mechanical means, such as masticators, AKA tree shredders, and prescribed fire, although the fire portion of the project is yet to begin and will come in during a later phase of the effort.
This model of watershed treatment has been met with excellent success in other parts of the state, says Russ Bigelow, a Forest Service fuels specialist.
“There’s been a lot of research done on doing things this way,” Bigelow says. “The benefits across the state in trying to restore the habitats are big. Success in the Fish Lake area has been tremendous.”
Rasmussen, Collins, Edgel and Bigelow all agree that the approach taken by WRI is a winning one, and they expect partnerships such as WRI to become the norm in other states as well.
Earlier this year, the BLM and the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) both committed to a further 5-year partnership working in collaboration with more than 500 other organizations to accomplish WRI projects in Utah.
“The WRI is an important component of our wildfire fuels reduction efforts and wildlife habitat improvements across Utah,” BLM Utah State Director Ed Roberson said about the partnership. “We are proud to be a part of such a meaningful and innovative partnership and thank the Utah Department of Natural Resources for their leadership. This five-year agreement is just one of the ways we work together to manage our Nation’s natural resources.”
Since its inception in 2005, WRI partner organizations have completed 2,120 projects on 1,824,842 acres throughout the state of Utah.