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Cooperation on aspen conservation
Aspens in Aspen Alley stand tall bearing early fall colors in Carbon County, Wyo., in October. Aspen groves in the Sierra Madre are part of an ongoing conservation plan at the Little Snake River Valley Conservation District. The project leads the state's efforts to promote aspen groves and manage beetle-killed conifers.

RAWLINS - It all began with a partnership with the Medicine Bow National Forest Service four years ago.

Soon, there was state money coming in - $33,000 - from the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust.

Now, it's a project worth about a quarter of a million dollars for the 2009 field season, and it's growing.

The Little Snake River Valley Conservation District is the entity behind a project and partnerships meant to manage beetle-killed conifers, restore aspen habitats and reclaim oil-and-gas fields.

It's on the cutting edge of statewide efforts, said Bob Budd, the Wildlife Trust's executive director.

"It's important because aspen habitats are the second most biologically productive habitat type in all of the state," Budd said. The number one habitat is riparian areas, such as rivers and streams."

"It's a huge issue," he said. "We know we're behind on it. (Little Snake River Valley has) been very aggressive. There are other efforts around the state to do similar things, but they haven't quite caught up to what's happening in Little Snake."

Larry Hicks, the natural resource coordinator at the district, is at the helm of the project.

Four years ago, the stewardship project was the largest stewardship contract created in Wyoming and most of Colorado, he said. It focused on enhancing 400 acres of aspens, 1,100 acres of beetle-killed conifers and 1,200 acres of fuel-load reductions.

Since then, Hicks has drawn together government, industry and nongovernment organizations to form the Little Snake Watershed Aspen Conservation Joint Venture. Its goal is to prolong the conservation effort, make it economically viable and continue to grow its funding.

It's a circular venture.

Reducing fuel loads means providing wood chips to local oil and gas companies. The chips replace the mulch, grass and straw they previously bought.

In turn, the energy companies are asked to donate an amount equivalent to what they'd pay for the chips to the trust fund.

The fund matches the donation and earmarks the money for future aspen rejuvenation efforts - often through controlled burns - and more fuel reduction on the west slope of the Sierra Madre.

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The Wyoming Legislature also donates equal dollars to the interest-earning portion of the fund to continue to grow it toward the goal of $200 million. Interest earned from the trust goes toward funding future projects.

"It's what the constituents of this community wanted us to do," Hicks said. "We've taken it to heart to get out there to try to lead on these efforts."

The goal for the next five years is to restore 10,000 acres of aspen communities near Baggs, Savery and Dixon.

"It's a lot of work," Hicks said. "I hope the people understand that we're trying to do this on behalf of wildlife and the scenic, aesthetic value those aspen communities provide.

"When we go through these things, it looks pretty brutal for a year or two from the standpoint that we're removing a lot of conifers and there's a lot of black ground. But we're taking a long-term view.

"The condition of our aspen stands today is a result of inactivity for the last 50 or 60 years. So we're in a catch-up mode. We ask that people get involved and try to understand the science and biology of what we're doing."

Budd complimented the ongoing project, saying, "This is a great example of what a little innovation, ingenuity and dedication can do."

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