Dozens of firefighters and contracted foresters have been out on foot in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, trimming, limbing and stacking slash piles of trees along the forest front south of Bondurant.
The project, now underway, is the first phase of a forest thinning and burning effort that covers 16,135 acres, reaching from the east face of Monument Ridge, south past Clark Draw and Clark Butte, and then continuing down to Kilgore Creek along Upper Hoback River Road. When headed out of the Hoback Canyon toward Pinedale, the area covers much of the high country south and west of Highway 189/191 all the way to the Hoback River bridge near the Bondurant post office.
“The project starts on the northwest end, and slowly over a 6- to 10-year period, we’ll work toward the Upper Hoback Road,” Bridger-Teton National Forest Big Piney District Ranger Don Kranendonk told the Jackson Hole Daily.
The goal is twofold: benefiting mule deer and other wildlife habitat by encouraging aspen growth, while also attempting to mitigate the risk of high-intensity wildfires by reducing the density of the forest.
The first area where chainsaws are cutting is near the Hoback Guard Station. About 60 firefighters and contractors, the district ranger said, were at work last week in that 2,000-acre treatment area, and crews will be out there much of the summer. It’s one of the treatment units that does not immediately call for prescribed fire, and it was selected partly because of U.S. Forest Service guidance to refrain from using prescribed fire due to COVID-19, a respiratory disease.
“With the COVID stuff,” Kranendonk said, “they’ve asked us to limit some of our burning on the landscape.”
Two years from now, in spring 2022, Bridger-Teton crews or contractors will ignite the then-cured piles of slash that firefighters are assembling right now, according to a press release from the forest.
The Bridger-Teton had been considering the Monument Ridge Vegetation and Recreation Management Project since well before the destructive 2018 Roosevelt Fire. That blaze burned 55 buildings in the Hoback Ranches development while engulfing more than 61,000 acres southwest of Bondurant. Some of the Monument Ridge project, then on the drawing board, overlapped with the Roosevelt Fire scar, and about 1,500 acres were removed from the current project as a result.
Kranendonk signed off on a decision memo authorizing the 25-square-mile project in October 2019. Its final configuration calls for about 20 square miles of “broadcast prescribed fire” and 5 square miles of forest thinning and pile burning. That landscape is now vegetated by mixed stands of lodgepole pine, aspen, Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir, subalpine fir and sagebrush-dominated plant communities, according to his decision.
The Bridger-Teton National Forest approved the project using a categorical exclusion to the National Environmental Policy Act and didn’t widely publicize it while in the planning stages, confining outreach to the Bondurant and Hoback Ranches communities, where there were a couple of meetings. One of the 2018 public meetings was “well attended,” Kranendonk said, but the second attracted just a single person.
“We got unanimous support,” he said. “I didn’t hear from any detractors on the project.”
The national forest’s efforts to vet the project with the Bondurant community evidently did not reach all residents of the area. Lisi Krall, an ecological economist, has owned a summer cabin along Upper Hoback River Road for 30 years, and when the Jackson Hole Daily reached her Monday, she was unaware of the work taking place in the hills a few miles away.
“I wasn’t notified,” Krall said, “and we’re right below Clark Butte.”