Just a few weeks after the Medicine Bow National Forest released a final record of decision for the Landscape Vegetation Analysis Project, also known as LaVA, the Mullen Fire erupted across a large swath of the project area.
The Laramie Ranger District is still moving forward with some treatment projects identified under the landscape-scale decision even as forest managers assess conditions in the burn area.
The aim of the LaVA project, first proposed in 2017, is to authorize flexible management of vegetation on the forest in a timely manner. Specifically, the project would allow for the removal and use of beetle-killed timber in order to maximize its value and reduce fire risk.
The decision would allow for treatments such as prescribed burns, tree thinning, hazard tree removal and tree harvest on up to 288,000 acres in the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre ranges during the next 15 years. The project is intended to benefit wildlife habitat, water supplies, road maintenance, views, recreation and public safety, according to the Forest Service.
The U.S. Forest Service developed the project in collaboration with multiple partner agencies and developed tools to allow the public to give ongoing feedback.
The project was developed using condition-based NEPA analysis, in which the environmental analysis is conducted over a broad area instead of at each specific treatment site. The aim of the condition-based analysis is to allow for flexible treatment within criteria established by the decision over a longer time frame. Districts can then identify projects that are ready to go and respond to changing conditions.
The final record of decision was signed on Aug. 13, while the Mullen Fire started Sept. 17. Included in the 176,000-acre fire were six of the 14 accounting units in the LaVA project area, totaling 152,000 acres.
Implementation of projects is on hold in those areas while forest managers assess post-fire conditions and prepare a supplemental report. Projects in unaffected areas will continue as planned.
“We’re still moving forward, but it looks a little different, to start off with, than we anticipated,” said spokesman Aaron Voos.
One of the first projects made possible in part by the LaVA decision, and which will be going forward this spring, is the Spool Timber Sale. Travis Pardue, an assistant district forester with the Wyoming State Forestry Division, said the project is a joint sale on Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and State Trust lands in the northern Sierra Madres. The bid process was just completed.
The state will conduct the sale, with the partnership made possible through the Good Neighbor Authority, a provision of the federal 2018 Farm Bill that allows the Forest Service to collaborate with state agencies on forestry work.
The sale includes about 226 acres of national forest and 50 acres each of state and BLM land.
“When we have these smaller acres, it’s really hard for us to sell that to a mill or a contractor because it’s not enough volume or acres that make sense for someone to buy it,” Pardue said. “When we put it together, that looks a lot better for a contractor to purchase that wood.”
The national forest portion of the sale was analyzed under two separate projects, one of which was the LaVA project. Pardue said land managers waited for the LaVA project to be approved so the sale could be conducted as a continuous parcel.
“It’s a continuous logging unit from Forest Service to state to BLM,” he said.
Besides being more cost-effective for a buyer, a larger timber sale across boundaries is better for landscape-scale forest health, he said.
“Instead of stopping at the property boundaries between the U.S. Forest Service and state lands and BLM lands, we’re able to continue that management from one land ownership to the next land ownership,” Pardue said. “That helps with overall forest health, fuels management and wildfire risk.”
Voos said the Spool Timber Sale was an example of the types of projects the LaVA decision is intended to allow, with multiple partners, across boundaries, and on a landscape scale.