PLC Field trip to burn area addresses camping, fire and hunting in Huntington Canyon
The Emery County Public Lands Council took a field trip for their August meeting to look at the Seeley fire burn area one year later.
The first stop was near the XTO property where a giant log jam had gathered due to last year's flooding. Earlier this year the Emery Water Conservancy District took care of the log jam which changed the course of the river in that area.
The next stop was where the lower debris basin will be constructed on SR-31 at the mouth of Bear Canyon.
The site for the upper debris basin right below the forest service boundary was explored. A map was shown and the design of the debris basin explained by Jonathan Johansen of Johansen and Tuttle Engineering.
At the Forks of Huntington campground, fire manager from the forest service Brandon Hoffman pointed out the area on the mountain where the Seeley Fire started in June 2012. He explained how the conditions with wind, drought and beetle killed trees created a "perfect storm," for that fire to get out of hand.
The fire was jumped on early and the order given was suppression of the fire. The fire soon grew from the lightning struck tree to several acres. Spotting occurred and the fire soon jumped SR-31 and began burning there. Hoffman said areas where the fire was stopped and didn't advance was in areas that had experienced previous burning like the Bear Canyon/Crandall Canyon fire from the 1970s, the Tie Fork fire from 2005 was also a stopping point for the fire.
Hoffman talked of the use of prescribed burns to ward off catastrophic fires. The forest service has worked on a number of prescribed burns over the years including the Jungle, Pines and others. The Groben burn is also scheduled to reduce fuels. He asked for the support of the public lands council in getting clearance to do these burns. Darren Olsen said, "This district has done a lot of work with controlled burns, more than any district I have ever worked with. This district is very proactive." Olsen said some environmental groups make it difficult for logging permits to be issued, but not impossible and they will continue to get the logging permit areas ready for harvest. Satterwaite in Gunnison bids on many of the logging permits in this area. It was discussed that sawmills in some areas have been put out of business due to delays in the issuance of logging permits.
It is an extensive process to obtain permission for burns of these types. The NEPA process must be gone through. That is also the same process that must be adhered to when any timber sales are put out for bid. The process is long and extensive. Hoffman said that Smoky Bear has done his job with fire suppression for the last 100 years and the catastrophic fires the west, especially, is experiencing is a result of too much fire suppression and the build up of fuel loads.
The group moved up Huntington Canyon to the Old Folks Flat campground. This campground hasn't sustained major damage but the creek bed has been severely cut and there are large dropoffs which could present a danger to campers.
Bill Broadbear, recreation specialist reported on the condition of campgrounds and road and trail closures.
Broadbear said with the approaching hunting seasons they are re-evaluating the canyon and looking for any potential dangers to users. The burn area is open for day use only and no over-night camping. Hunting may occur within the burn area. The Left Fork campground as well as others in the canyon are open to day use/picnicking, hiking, etc. The Left Fork trail is open for day use only. There are still fish in the river in the upper Left Fork. Near the campground the fish haven't been restocked. Justin Hart said the DWR will look at beginning restocking next year depending on the flooding conditions. Flood episodes this year would have wiped out any newly planted fish as the river ran black again.
Broadbear said some roads and trails are still impassable. Bob Wright will remain closed due to flooding and Second Water. Pole Canyon remains closed with that trail being wiped out. The pipeline trail is flooded and will remain closed.
Left Fork is open to foot traffic only. No horses. Trail work has been done on the Left Fork at some places along the trail it's been washed out to bedrock. The back country horsemen have worked cutting out steps and grooves and it's ready for foot traffic but not horses.
The Nuckwoodward road will be open to the trail head. It will be closed to motorized traffic from there up. This will be day use only. Castle Valley Ridge road will remain closed at the portion that's been washed away.
The forest service is looking at wide spots along SR-31 that can be used for access points and staging areas. The forest service is drafting up a new closure document which will list all of the openings and closures at this time. This document may change as more fall rains come and it will be evaluated periodically.
Olsen, forest ranger for Ferron said, "We will open where-ever we feel it's safe to have people."
Overnight camping will also be looked at as the fall hunts approach. But, for now camping in the 10 mile long burn area is not allowed.
As the hunts approach there have been a number of calls from hunters wondering where they will be allowed to go.
Some of the campgrounds have been severely damaged and may not be rebuilt at this time. Chutes and Bridges have sustained significant damage and South Hughes is unrecognizable. Other camping areas may need to be developed to take the place of campgrounds lost.
Ray Petersen, public lands director said the county would like to sustain no net-loss of camping areas and if new areas have to be developed then that's what needs to happen because the recreation use in Huntington Canyon is very heavy.
The forest service officials said they will get through the flooding stage of the aftermath of the fire and then re-evaluate camping opportunities in the canyon down the road.
Olsen said the burn areas received wood chip treatments this summer to keep soil in place. Even with recent rains, many of the wood chips remain in place. Some of the burned trees were chipped for this purpose and some trees were shipped in from other places. You can chip the burn trees that are within a 150 feet of the road without going through the NEPA process.
The grazers have been using electric fence to keep their cattle out of the burn area so the aspen can regenerate. There are no restrictions on the elk and it was reported the elk moved into the burn area last fall after the cattle were taken off and they ate some of the aspen regeneration.
Aspen in the burn areas are now four-five feet tall.
Studies are being done at this time regarding the elk, cattle and the aspen regeneration.
After leaving the Old Folks Flat campground the group traveled to South Hughes to look at the debris basins the forest service constructed there. There's been a lot of damage to the work the forest service has completed this year due to the recent flooding events.
SR-31 in Huntington Canyon has been closed several times this summer due to debris and rocks blocking the road.
The group traveled to Mill Canyon where the Emery Water Conservancy district has placed two debris basins. The flooding episode the first part of August filled the debris basins with at least three feet of sediment and washed rocks away that the heavy equipment was having a hard time moving. Jay Mark Humphrey said they are at a loss. They haven't dealt with flooding and erosion of this magnitude before. They will keep on cleaning the debris basins and along the creek channel they are placing rocks and keeping them in place with concrete. The rocks that were concreted in stayed in place with the last round of flooding.
All groups involved with the restoration of Huntington Canyon will continue to work to mitigate damages caused by the flooding. One strategy the forest service is going to use is to create debris blocks with logs farther up the canyons to slow down the water and debris before it reaches the highway. Natural log jams have formed in many spots and this has worked to slow down water and debris.
All groups agree it's going to be a long and drawn out process and they ask for the patience of the public as they try to make the canyon as safe and usable as possible for recreation, grazing and hunting purposes.