Scorched land closed during rehabilitation

Pine Ridge Fire denuded area; environmental effects a concern

Almost 14,000 acres of public land recently scorched by the Pine Ridge Fire will remain closed while officials try to mitigate environmental impacts, Bureau of Land Management representatives said at a public meeting in De Beque Wednesday night.

The lightning-caused fire burned 13,920 acres southwest of De Beque between June 27 and July 4.

“For lack of a better word, it’s completely nude,” said Chris Joyner, public affairs specialist for the BLM’s Northwest District. “It’s down to the bare surface. It’s just decimated.”

The high-intensity fire burned extremely hot, said Catherine Robertson, the BLM’s Grand Junction field manager. Where often wildfires leave charred remains of trees or other flora, the Pine Ridge Fire left only ash, she said.

“Because of the severity of that burn, we’re concerned about the soil being burned so hot that it has no nutrient value left in it,” she said, “no seed source.”

Joyner said officials also are concerned about soil erosion, and about runoff onto the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and into the Colorado River. After Saturday afternoon’s heavy rains, detritus from the fire’s aftermath ran into the Colorado River and clogged Clifton’s water system, he said.

Also after the rain, Joyner said, hastily built retention ponds in the burned area were almost 80 percent full and clogged with ash, so they’ll need to be cleared out and more will need to be built.

Robertson said the area — less than 1,000 acres are private land; the rest are BLM land — was closed Thursday and tentatively will remain closed through July 12, 2013.

Some of the 25 people who attended Wednesday’s meeting expressed concern that the land will remain closed indefinitely or even permanently. One man said he thinks everybody is being punished for the actions of a few who wouldn’t stay on roads and trails in that area.

The BLM’s emergency closure of the land prohibits all motorized and mechanized vehicles and foot travel. Robertson said exceptions will be made for the private landowners and for those with oil and gas interests in the area. Recreational use, however, will be prohibited.

On Sunday, a Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation Team, led by Amelia Underwood from the BLM’s Las Cruces (N.M.) District, began working on a proposal for dealing with the Pine Ridge Fire’s environmental impacts.

“Right now, our main focus is to stabilize the soil,” she said.

The proposal will be submitted for federal approval by July 23, she said, and will include an estimate of how much it will cost to try saving the area. Ken Holsinger, a natural resource specialist in the BLM’s Montrose field office, said an idea being discussed is to quickly seed the area with sterile grass — an agricultural wheat and rye hybrid — to hold the soil in place until it can be seeded with perennial plants.

“As with all things, you can have really great plans, but if it doesn’t rain…” Robertson said. “There’s no irrigation system out there.”

Rancher Scott Stewart, who owns some land in the burned area and said he closed secondary road access through it because of safety concerns, emphasized cooperating with the BLM in its efforts to treat the land.

“We all have a stake in it,” Stewart said. “We just have to come together collaboratively.”


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