VIDEO: Fire on the Mountain, Part One

Community organizer Aaron Kimple showed up at the Reservoir Hill Park gathering on a warm autumn afternoon in Pagosa Springs, dressed in a short sleeve cotton shirt.  Most of the rest of the small crowd of about 20 people were wearing long sleeves, typically polar fleece or flannel; a few were wearing jackets.

The numerous pine trees in the park were showing the signs of coming winter — many of the needles were turning a seasonal brown and getting ready to drop onto the dusty, nearly barren forest floor, as they do each year.  Too many needles, perhaps.

We’d come to learn about “forest health” — more particularly, about a somewhat controversial plan to remove a large number of the smaller pine trees atop Reservoir Hill, the 120 acre wilderness park that overlooks the San Juan River, just south and east of downtown Pagosa.  The removal work would be funded partly by a grant from the Colorado Forest Service; the actual work would be performed by a local alternative energy company, Clean Forest Energy.

Here’s Part One of a three-part video series dealing with the proposed thinning of the Reservoir Hill forest.  We’ll hear Aaron Kimple of the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership, and Pagosa Ranger District forester Steve Hartvigsen engaging interested members of the Pagosa Springs community in a discussion about what, exactly, the term “forest health” might mean in the case of the 120 acres of Reservoir Hill Park.

Organizer Aaron Kimple:

“The San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership really prides itself on being a community built organization. It’s composed of ranchers, business owners, community citizens, outdoor group members, really anybody who has an interest in the area, who enjoys living in the forest, enjoys living in this area of Colorado, and understands the concerns… And wants to learn about the concerns associated with forest health.  San Juan Headwaters is designed to bring all those folks together…

“There’s a couple of things that come along with living in the woods, that we’re all aware of that and we’ve seen on the news quite a bit lately. You know, big wildfires have come through.  And there’s kind of three [main] impacts associated with wildfire in the area.  One is just the flames on the ground, and what we see actively happening, and things burning.  Number two is the smoke and the indirect impacts that come [from wildfire] — the smoke and smell and having to deal with that sort of thing.  And third is what happens after a fire comes through, and what does that mean in terms of water quality; what’s coming off the ground after a fire burns.

“And so the San Juan Headwaters really came together around those three issues.”

The people of Pagosa Springs escaped the threat of wildfire this past summer, but we experienced major wildfires in the San Juan National Forest and in the nearby Rio Grande National Forest in 2012 and 2013 — the Little Sand Creek Fire in 2012 and the West Fork Complex Fire in 2013.

The fires were relatively remote from developed residential areas; the most obvious impact for most residents and visitors was air pollution: smoke and odor.  (The West Fork Fire burned about 110,000 acres, and came within a few miles of the towns of South Fork and Creede; it also threatened Wolf Creek Ski Area.)  An impact that was felt somewhat later, in the case of the West Fork Fire, was soil erosion that muddied the waters of the San Juan River for the rest of the summer, causing drinking water issues in Pagosa Springs.

The Town of Pagosa Springs — which owns the Reservoir Hill wilderness park — has received a grant to fund some forest thinning this coming winter.  The Town has been making minor attempts at hand-thinning over the past few years; this will be the first time heavy machinery will be used in the park, through a contract with Clean Forest Energy, an biomass energy project started several years ago by local business owner J.R. Ford.

Following the welcome speech by Mr. Kimple, Pagosa Ranger District forester Steve Hartvigsen took the group of about 20 local citizens on a hike through the park, centered mainly on the area that gets used for the FolkWest music festivals each summer.  About 2,000 people camp out in the wilderness park during the annual Labor Day Four Corners Folk Festival, causing considerable impact to the vegetation on the forest floor.

But as we learned during the hike, human impacts to this particular forest have stretched back to the late 1800s, and the result, in 2014, is an overgrown Ponderosa pine forest.  Possibly, an unhealthy forest.

Possibly, a dangerous forest…

Read Part Two…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.