VIDEO: Fire on the Mountain, Part Three

Read Part One

As part of the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership tour (and barbecue) on October 4, Pagosa Ranger District forester Steve Hartvigsen had tied blue-and-white ribbons around a few of the larger pine trees in a well-wooded area just west of Reservoir Hill Park’s ‘Folk Festival Meadow.’  The meadow is not technically named after the Four Corners Folk Festival — although that annual festival is the largest event held on Reservoir Hill, and possibly the largest in the entire county, in terms of numbers of out-of-towners attracted into Pagosa Springs.

Steve admitted that the ribbons had been placed just that morning, and that their placement was perhaps more a matter of art than science.  But he wanted to hear our reactions — the reactions of the 20 of us local citizens who’d showed up for the free tour and lecture (and barbecue.)  What did we think?  If the trees marked were left to grow and mature, and the rest of the Ponderosa pines — mostly the smaller ones — were removed this winter by the machinery operated by Clean Forest Energy?

I had the sense, looking around at the numerous ‘unflagged’ trees, that maybe 80 percent of the pines would be removed, if we went with Steve’s sample choices.  Not 80 percent of the ‘biomass” however; most of the largest pines would be preserved; most of the smaller trees would be cut and removed — and chipped into mulch.

Several of the local individuals who’ve been involved in the ongoing attempts to improve the health of the Reservoir Hill Park forest, and reduce its potential fire danger, were participants on the tour.   At one point, we heard a question from local arborist Chris Pierce, who has helped remove a few of the most dangerous-seeming older pine trees within the park, (and in some cases, used the resulting wood to construct rustic benches for the park users.)

“Like J.R. was saying, we don’t want to do a ‘perfect plan’ right now, today.  Is there a plan to look at this, in two years? So we can determine if we should not have taken out certain trees, five years ago?”

Mr. Pierce was standing next to J.R. Ford, the president of Clean Forest Energy — the company that will be removing the wood from Reservoir Hill this coming winter, as part of a Colorado State Forest Service grant.

Is there a long range plan?  Jim Miller, director of the Town of Pagosa Springs Parks Department, explained that the Town has a written document dating back to the early 1990s, but noted the beliefs and understandings about forest health have changed since that plan was constructed.

That (outdated?) plan was developed for the Town by the Colorado State Forest Service.

“It talked about a variety of factors that are less an issue now,” Mr. Miller explained. “And did not talk about some of the factors that [Steve Hartvigsen] has been addressing.  Bark beetle wasn’t on the horizon back then. The policies around risk management were less urgent, it seems.  It was a different philosophy.”

Then Mr. Miller pointed at his own skull.

“But the Town’s current management plan is in here. And the plan has been ‘whatever I can convince the constituents and Town Council is the best, and most affordable, process.’ And what’s been happening is, the Southwest Conservation Corps has come in each of the past seven years, and treated six to eight acres on a very limited and very sensitive and restrained basis — thinning 20 to 30 percent of a given stand.”

What’s changed in the Reservoir Hill forest since 1990? Not much, if you ask the trees themselves.  But our human concepts of the world have changed significantly.  We have a much stronger general sense, I think, that human beings have placed themselves and the global environment at risk — at dire risk, some believe — by the way we’ve treated the earth, the trees, the animals, the minerals, the atmosphere.

25 years ago, the Colorado State Forest Service probably looked at the forest on Reservoir Hill and nodded their heads, “Looks pretty good. You should probably cut down any dangerous trees.”  The picture that forester Steve Hartvigsen was painting for us earlier this month, however, was of forests throughout Colorado that have been made unhealthy and ‘ready to burn’ by the behavior of human beings.  And clearly, it is now up to us humans to repair the damage, and restore the forests to a healthier condition.

Such ‘restoration’ appears about to occur on Reservoir Hill.

Forester Steve Hartvigsen led the tour group east and uphill from the ‘Festival Meadow’ to a spot where a number of old “yellow bark” Ponderosa pines stood in a relatively isolated clump, surrounded by grasses and low-growing Gambel oak.  I had walked through this little glade numerous times over the past 20 years, but will readily admit, I had never noticed how subtly different this particular spot seemed, from the rest of the forest we’d been visiting that afternoon.  The large pines were well spaced, with plenty of room for sunlight and rain to filter in and nourish the undergrowth.

wildfire forest health tree thinning healthy trees

Steve Hartvigsen:

“This is what I think a lot of our Ponderosa pine [forests] looked like in the past.  This represents a condition that was typical before we came in and upset the balance.  Look at the spacing between these trees; look at the greater undergrowth.  There’s still not that much, but there’s a lot of grass… And look at the size of these trees.  I haven’t been all over this hill, but this is like a fine, old growth patch of pine… This is a special place.

“The intent [of the current harvesting schedule] is not to take the whole forest back to this light a density.  For one thing, we don’t have the size in the trees that are here now [on Reservoir Hill.]  But this stand serves as kind of a guideline, for what we think the forest used to look like.  And we hope, if we thin out this forest, and put growth on the trees that are retained for the future, we hope they can eventually get this size.”

He motioned up at the large, majestic pines — remaining remnants of a time before the arrival of the white man.

forest health wildfire steve hartvigsen

As we’d heard from Parks director Jim Miller, the ‘plan’ for Reservoir Hill is built, in large part, around what is considered “affordable.”  The preservation and restoration of Reservoir Hill Park is only one of many priorities the Town Council is hoping to address over the next decade.  An awful lot of priority seems assigned, at the moment, to economic development and enhanced tourism.

So maybe we should ask the question.  If the Reservoir Hill forest burned to the ground next summer, would that have a significant effect on tourism in Archuleta County?

Read Part Four…

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.