As the mud dries and outdoor enthusiasts return to Grand County’s trails for hiking, biking and trail running, they’re bound to notice some changes.
The U.S. Forest Service Sulphur Ranger District, which manages 450,000 acres of public land in the area, is working to mitigate hazards caused by beetle-killed pines lining trails and roads. As the trees die, they can rot from the bottom up and fall unexpectedly. This creates dangerous obstacles for bikers moving at high speeds, and precarious situations for hikers and campers caught unaware.
“Our intent is to benefit the public, both by increasing safety and reducing fire, so people can continue to recreate in the forest,” said Brad Orr, recreation staff officer for the Sulphur Ranger District.
The district’s solution has been to cut dead stands back 60 feet from trails – the maximum height of an average lodgepole – controlling where and when they fall. The felled trees have been left in place because of budget restrictions and to encourage ecological recovery.
“One thing we hear from the public is, ‘it’s so messy, why didn’t you clean it up?’” said Reid Armstrong, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. “From an ecological standpoint, we don’t want to clean it up.”
Leaving cut trees on the forest floor helps encourage healthy recovery. Any pinecones left on trees add to the seedbed. They create microenvironments for animals that scurry beneath logs for shelter. They also create shade for smaller plants.
“It may not look pretty, but it’s nature, and it’s not always a bad thing,” Armstrong said.
According to Orr, the Sulphur District has 200 miles of system trails that could use some level of hazard tree reduction. Trails within wilderness land and above treeline will not be treated. About 50 miles of trail have been treated so far.
Popular trails like Creekside Loop and Flume trail, near the Fraser Experimental Forest, are 80 to 90 percent complete and open to the public. The district closed the trails during mitigation late last fall.
The trailside hazard work has caused some concern over preservation of historic resources, particularly the old wooden logging chute for which the Flume trail gets its name. Both Armstrong and Orr said that while chainsaw crews do their best to prevent felled pines from damaging resources, they can’t always control the direction of a tree’s fall.
“This is something that’s happening across the forest,” Armstrong said. “There are historical structures everywhere that we try to identify. We don’t know where they all are, but we do our best to protect them. But obviously nature is going to take its course as well.”
Much of the old flume has collapsed flat into what Orr calls “two dimensionality” from age, deterioration and naturally falling trees. But the district acknowledges flume damage from trailside hazard mitigation as well. They plan on bringing in a field archaeologist the week of June 17 to assess options for repair and preservation.
Maura McKnight, executive director for local trails advocacy group Headwaters Trails Alliance, said the U.S. Forest Service’s trailside mitigation efforts have been mostly positive.
“We have good, open communication with the Forest Service. We haven’t heard any public comment about damage to flume or work going on at this time,” she said.
For future trailside work, Headwaters Trails Alliance is petitioning the U.S. Forest Service to use handwork over mechanical sawing on Idelwild trail, minimizing impact. But McKnight said the extent of the area’s beetle kill creates looming obstacles.
“It’s an overwhelming problem, and the Forest Service is doing the best they can,” she said.