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Medicine Bow

Brian Harmsen: Years of Activism Turned Medicine Bow Forest Into Ticking Time Bomb

in Column/Brian Harsman

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By Brian Harmsen, guest columnist

Many of you “locals” have been following what’s going on with the Mullen Fire. It’s hard not to when our “sunny Saturday” looks like this?  

So, in the span of 48 hours, the Mullen Fire has grown from about 17,000 acres to what our Governor reported this morning as “over 80,000 acres.” 

It was at over 25,000 acres yesterday morning and tripled in size in a single day. Just for comparison, the Cameron Peak Fire across the border in Colorado started almost six weeks ago and is at 111,000 acres as of this morning. 

The cabin communities of Keystone and Lake Creek have been evacuated and overrun. Structure losses in either have yet to be reported as crews haven’t been able to return yet.

The communities of Foxpark and Albany were evacuated last night. Woods Landing was evacuated earlier today. As of now, everyone between the fire and the Colorado border has been ordered out. Centennial is under a pre-evacuation order. 

This is country many of us know fairly well. I’ve fished on Douglas Creek, Rob Roy, and Lake Owen. Hunted Savage Run and Muddy Mountain. Cut Firewood on Centennial Ridge.

Camped at Muddy Creek Dry Park and Lake Creek. I’ve snowmobiled all of these roads in the winter and enjoyed weekend drives across them in the summer. Since 1992. 

In those 28 years, I’ve watched this area evolve from a ticking bomb into the nuclear disaster it is today.  Roads that were easily passable in a 4×4 pickup in 1995 were like trying to drive up a riverbed last summer.

I’ve had to include my chainsaw as required equipment and have cut my way in as well as cut my way out on account of dead trees that fall across the roads frequently.

It was difficult packing elk quarters out over miles of deadfall timber in 1992 – I’m not sure I could do it today being 28 years older and significantly more deadfall in the way?  

I attended a National Interagency Fire Center Conference in 2009 where the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests were referred by one speaker as “the Dead Forest,” as an estimated seven out of every ten trees were expected to die due to a Rocky Mountain Pune Beetle infestation. 

Let’s go back a few more years. In 1978, I did a Forestry project in 4-H on the Rocky Mountain Pine beetle. 

While I learned a lot about the beetle itself, I also learned that trees do survive attacks. Given adequate water and nutrients, healthy trees literally “flush” the beetles right out the holes they came in.

That project went to the Colorado State Fair where it was recognized as “Reserve Grand Champion” that year. 

How do we achieve healthy trees, though?  They grow where they want to, and they often grow so close to other trees that they come into competition with them for the nutrients and water necessary for them to remain healthy.

Just because it’s “a forest” doesn’t mean that if has soil and water conducive to growing an unlimited number of healthy trees. So, unchecked, it grows a whole lot of “unhealthy” trees instead. Such trees become the preferred victim of the Rocky Mountain Pine Beetle. 

I can remember “beetle trees” for almost as long as I can remember being in the forests they occurred in from the mid-1970s.

I know we’ve talked about extreme drought since the late 1980s, but the beetles were here before that. Drought became “climate change”. But climate change didn’t bring the beetles either – unhealthy trees did.  

I used to watch the big log trucks from San Juan logging run up and down the Piedra Road when I was a kid.

I watched similar trucks from Heggie Logging, Nieman Sawmills, as well as numerous independent operators do the same thing through the 1980s into mills in places like Fox Park, Hulett, and Spearfish. Yes, beetles were present, as was an occasional fire. 

Something changed in the 1990s.  As a country, we seemed to become more “environmentally conscious.” 

The time-proven management processes of logging, grazing, and controlled burning became seen as exploitative and a source of pollution.

In the late 1990s, I became more aware of groups like Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in my hometown of Laramie, whose membership zealously fought every timber sale, every commercial use, even some recreational uses in the courts, using the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) to either bully the Forest Service into capitulating to their demands (“settling out of court”) versus the Forest Service risking having to pay hefty “Environmental Attorney Fees” should the judge rule against the agency. 

The Forest Service began putting locked gates across roads I’d used for years or outright “obliterating” them.

I stopped seeing log trucks. Since the logging companies were doing most of the road maintenance, the roads started falling into disrepair.

With no revenue coming in from timber sales, Forest Service campgrounds started to also fall into disrepair and close.

Many of us saw our forest and the agency struggling to care for them in a death spiral. Unmanaged, unchecked forests became overgrown and unhealthy. 

Somewhat more alarming, I also began to notice that the apolitical professionals who’d been managing our national forests were retiring or being forced out of the agency, making room for “advocates” who often ingratiated themselves to, if not actively supported, the activist groups that had been suing them. 

Here we are today. We need to rip the management of our public lands out of the clutches of the activist groups and activist courts – or at least demonetize litigation as a source of revenue for them.

We need to put that management back into the hands of unbiased, career professionals. 

Our Medicine Bow National Forest will never be the same. It will be different. It will be new.

Col. Brian Harmsen (Retired) has appreciated and enjoyed our Wyoming outdoors as a resident of more than 40 years. He is originally from Sundance but has also lived in Laramie and Cheyenne.

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Mullen Fire Likely To Grow Due To Strong Winds

in News/wildfire

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Mullen Fire in Medicine Bow National Forest is likely to grow in size this week due to strong, gusty winds and dry weather, according to forest officials.

The U.S. Forest Service announced this on Monday, as well as noting there is a red flag warning in place for the region, which is a concern. The winds could push the fire in multiple directions, but will likely end up moving east and northeast, the Forest Service said.

The fire had affected 13,835 acres as of Monday morning. In addition to the Savage Run Wilderness, the fire is established in the Platte River Wilderness.

Available fuels and the region’s topography could let the fire make a run up Mullen Creek headwaters into Douglas Creek and Middle Fork Little Laramie, the agency said.

Forest Service spokesman Aaron Voos told Cowboy State Daily on Monday that a “Type II” management assessment team will arrive Tuesday to assume management of the fire.

“Basically, they come in to assess the damage and what’s going on and then bring in the appropriate resources to combat the fire,” he explained.

The assessment teams usually consist of around 30 members, but can quickly grow to 50 or 100 people with additional resources. Voos said the group won’t be as large this year due to coronavirus restrictions, but its members will still likely be in the area for about two weeks.

On Sunday, ground and aerial operations were successful in containing 2% of the fire on the west side. A 100-person crew is working the fire, while helicopters, air tankers and single-engine air tankers are working the fire’s edges.

The fire has grown significantly since it was first reported on Thursday. The cause was still unknown as of Monday morning and Voos couldn’t report specifics of the investigation.

“We’re looking for tips on what might have happened, especially firsthand knowledge,” he said. “We know the general area of where the fire started, but due to its complexity, we haven’t been able to get an investigator in there yet.”

All members of the public, including campers and hunters, were advised to leave the area due to the possibility for extreme fire behavior.

Fire growth wasn’t as intense as expected over the weekend, with mainly interior burning and some expansion around the middle of the burn. The fire slowed after spreading outside of the wilderness.

On Sunday, the Albany County Emergency Management Agency requested evacuation of the Keystone area, which included Keystone proper, lower Keystone, Langford/Ricker, Moore’s Gulch and the 507C cabin grouping.

A pre-evacuation notice was also issued for the Centennial Valley, including the private land along Fox Creek Road, the communities of Albany, Centennial, extending northwest to the Snowy Range along Highway 130 and all areas west of Highway 11 in the valley.

The Rambler and Rob Roy areas have also been evacuated.

The fire originated in the Savage Run Wilderness area of the forest in Carbon County.

Portions of the forest have been closed due to the fire and Voos noted that while the closures are frustrating for the public, they have occurred in the interest of safety.

“We don’t take this closure lightly,” he said. “We only do it because we feel the fire has the potential to impact certain areas. We realize people are looking for immediate information on the fire, and we’re trying to provide it as quickly as possible, but want to make sure everything we release is accurate and not immediately out-of-date.”

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Fire Burning At Medicine Bow National Forest

in News/wildfire

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A fire in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southeastern Wyoming first reported Thursday grew to more than 200 acres Friday morning, officials said.

U.S. Forest Service officials, on the agency’s “Inciweb” fire-tracking website urged those visiting the forest’s Savage Run Wilderness area to leave because of the threat posed by the fire.

The fire, known as the Mullen Fire, was reported midday Thursday, but the cause had not been determined as of late Friday morning.

The fire origin started in the Savage Run Wilderness area in the forest in Carbon County.

There is a possibility for extreme fire behavior through the weekend and a high probability for fire growth to the north and east, up the Mullen Creek drainages, as well as the Savage Run Creek drainage, the Forest Service said.

Ground crews are focusing on protecting the area near the A Bar A Ranch to the west and private property to the east. The Rambler and Rob Roy areas have been evacuated.

Two helicopters are currently working the fire edges. Forest Service staff, the Wyoming Game and Fish officials and Albany/Carbon Counties staff are helping people get away from the fire area.

The fire is in extremely rugged terrain with live blowdowns and beetle-killed deadfall trees.

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Virginian Hotel Owner Says Hotel is Haunted But By Friendly Ghosts

in Community/arts and culture

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By Mike McCrimmon, Cowboy State Daily

The historic Virginian Hotel in Medicine Bow probably is probably visited by ghosts, according to its owner.

Vernon Scott, who has been involved with the Virginian throughout his life, said although he has never seen a spirit in the hotel, he is pretty sure they do exist.

“I think there’s spirits, honestly, here,” he said. “It’s good spirits, though.”

Since the hotel was built in 1911, it has hosted a number of famous visitors, including Teddy Roosevelt, Western artist Charlie Russell, football legend John Madden and author Owen Wister. The hotel took its name from Wister’s novel “The Virginian.”

It has also seen several tragedies, such as the death of a woman who jumped from the window of one of the hotel’s upper floors, as well as the death of a county sheriff, Scott said.

Scott said people who believe they hear spectral noises may just be hearing the sounds of an old building.

“I think what people hear are the steam pipes rattling the winter time,” he said.

However, he said many people have told stories of seeing strange things in the old hotel.

“My wife has a picture on her telephone,” he said. “At the bar, there’s an orb sitting there on a barstool. Strangest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Then there is the bed in one room that shows signs of being used just minutes after it is made.

“You can make it right now and right after that, butt cheeks (imprints will appear) in there like somebody sat down,” he said.

Another guest reported that when she stayed in the suite named after Wister, she often would see a woman dressed in a white gown.

“There’s just different things like that,” Scott said.

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