KOOSHAREM, Sevier County — Multiple organizations have invested millions of dollars in recent years to restore aspen tree ecosystems on Monroe Mountain in southern Utah.
Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the U.S. Forest Service partnered to create the Monroe Mountain Aspen Ecosystems Restoration Project, according to a news release by the Division of Wildlife Resources. The project is considered a high priority, as aspens create a healthy watershed and provide an accommodating residence for wildlife.
“Seven or eight years ago, a group of us got together and decided there was a significant amount of aspen loss happening on the mountain,” Gary Bezzant, the DWR’s southern regional habitat program manager, told KSL.com. “Aspens are lost in a few different ways, but the biggest one we were looking at was what we call ‘conifer encroachment’, which means that pine-type trees were growing in and replacing aspens and choking them out.”
It’s normal for conifers to encroach, but ordinarily fires come in to “reset the system”, according to Bezzant. Fires had been nonexistent in the area for so long that there hadn’t been any disruptive influence to reset the cycle.
“Conifer and aspen have evolved together over forever,” Bezzant said. “Aspen is the first thing that appears and it does really well and then conifers appear. When they are co-dominant there’s a high likelihood that fire will come through and kill out all the conifer.”
Aspens have a tendency to re-sprout from the root system when a disturbance like that occurs, so killing off the top of all the aspens will cause new aspens to sprout very quickly, Bezzant explained. The system then resets and the cycle begins all over again.
“The problem we were having on Monroe Mountain was that this conifer encroachment was happening but we weren’t having a disturbance to reset that system,” Bezzant said. “And so the aspen trees were blinking out and there was beginning to be less and less of a root system available to help restock that aspen if and when we ever did get that fire through there.”
Bezzant and his colleagues put together a proactive plan to utilize prescribed fire in removing the encroaching conifers and stimulate the aspens, according to Bezant. They now work on it year round and are most active during the summer.
“They actually told me yesterday that they’d done about 40 acres in the past two days and were going to do 500 acres today,” he said. “And then based on those burns, they were hoping to burn about 5,000 acres next week. They’re using those early, smaller burns to create a blackline which wouldn’t attract fire again. They’re doing this very carefully to create a buffer in which they’ll burn a bigger area in the middle without it getting outside.”
Aspen trees grow back relatively quickly, according to Bezzant. In the first year, they expect to see trees at about three to four feet in height. By year six, they are more than ten feet tall.
“It takes twenty to thirty years to get to a fully stocked aspen glen, but it definitely recovers really quickly when you’re thinking ecologically,” he said.
Monroe Mountain has lost more than 70% of its aspen cover over the past 200 years, according to the news release. As a result, extensive funding is being allocated to remove conifers, utilize prescribed burns, thin trees and seed new aspens.
“It’s an awesome project that is being really successful and we’re really excited about it,” Bezzant concluded. “We’d like to mimic it on other forests in other places in southern Utah. We’d love to do it anywhere that hasn’t experienced a large wildfire in the last twenty years.”