Trees for the future, for climbing, for art

When a large and magnificent tree dies, it’s a true shame; but it would be even worse if the valuable wood from the tree were wasted.

Although three of Pagosa’s towering old pines died and had to be removed recently for safety concerns, a silver lining presented itself in the form of firewood for a number of Pagosa residents in need of wood for heating their homes during these last months of winter. An additional happy ending to a sad tree story is that a local sculptor has committed to carving the remaining tree stumps into works of art, that residents and visitors of Pagosa will enjoy for years to come.

Chris Pierce, owner/operator of the Pagosa tree service company Arborilogical West, volunteered last month to remove the three dead pine trees that towered 70 feet or more over the Pagosa Mountain Hospital building. Pierce and a crew of five other volunteers — Dan MacVeigh of Fire Ready, Jim Milstein, Rohan Roy and Paul and Matt Midgley — met one day in February to take on the task.

First, the crew threw a throw line onto a branch high up in the first tree that they then used to pull up a climbing line. A climber carrying a chainsaw then scaled the tree with the aid of the climbing line and tree-climbing boot spurs, taking off the limbs of the tree as he climbed; next the climber, working with people on the ground set up a tag line on a pulley system. The tagline is the crucial rope that ensures that the tree — when cut — will fall the right way. The climber then cut the top of the tree off below the tagline, while crewmen on the ground pulled the tagline, guiding its fall. And then they repeated the procedure with the next two trees. The crew then bucked up the wood from the fallen trees and Pagosa Mountain Hospital contacted the Methodist Church, to offer the firewood to anyone in need.

“The root systems of these trees were destroyed three years ago, during construction of the hospital,” said Pierce. They had become a hazard to the cars in the hospital parking lots, the hospital building itself and, of course, the people who come and go from the hospital, he explained.

“It’s really a shame that they died and had to be removed. Those trees should have been there for our grandchildren,” Pierce said. In his tree service work, Pierce likes to try to address threats to trees before they kill the tree when he has the chance. “In a perfect world an arborist will be involved in construction planning from the beginning,” he explained. “Careful trenching for driveways and parking areas and other construction infrastructure is essential for the health of trees on the property. Trees need to be a part of the entire process,” not an afterthought, Pierce said.

Post-construction, it is important to continue to monitor trees. This is done by concentrating on pruning, fertilization, diagnostics for disease and insect problems and fire mitigation to try to keep trees thriving and avoid having to take them down. Pierce is especially excited about a new, less invasive treatment for the mountain pine beetles that have lately plagued trees in our area. Approval from the EPA is pending on the new chemicals, but once they are approved, Pierce looks forward to having a gentler way of addressing the insect infestation that has become such a dire problem in the west.

For Pierce, trees are well worth all this care. “Without trees we wouldn’t be on this planet,” he said. “They are carbon sinks in addition to providing us with the oxygen we have to breath, they’re a source of products and medicine we all use. They create an incredible habitat for wildlife. They are a foundation for entire ecosystems. They are the largest living things on the planet. Just having the privilege to work with trees is a gift,” he said. “And getting to climb them ... well, that’s just amazing.”

Though most of us will never have occasion to scale a tree while carrying a chainsaw, residents of the Four Corners may soon have the chance to climb for fun into some of the highest trees around. The thrill of climbing, and the views that heights like that afford have turned tree climbing into a new outdoor sport that’s all the rage. Last year alone, over 100,000 people climbed trees recreationally. Pierce, in addition to being an arborist, is a longtime judge for the International Tree Climbing Competition, which is sponsored by the International Society of Arborculture.

“The International Tree Climbing Competition is like the Super Bowl of our industry,” said Pierce. “So it’s great getting to be a judge.” Pierce will be training with a professional recreational tree climbing organization this spring to learn how to safely bring the adventure sport to Pagosa residents and visitors, possibly as soon as this summer.

Pierce hopes that participants in the sport of tree climbing will enjoy not just the excitement of the climb, but the educational aspects as well.

“We can provide a way to safely scale a tree, and learn about its history as we go,” Pierce said. “We can show climbers things like lightening strike sites, fungal infections that have healed themselves, wildlife habitat and more as we climb. Understanding trees as well as caring for them is both a science and an art form,” he explained. And he hopes to share that passion with Pagosans through this new recreational offering. Perhaps through knowing trees better, more people will become more invested in protecting the well-being of trees and the ecosystems they support.

“Every tree has its own history, as a part of the land it came from, of the life it lived, and often how it may have died. Whether it be wildfire scorched trees, beetle infestations brought on by drought, or man’s practice of involvement in nature, I try to understand this and take it into account when I create with it,” wrote Chad Haspels in his artist’s statement; Haspels is a professional sculptor and six-year resident of Pagosa Springs who has volunteered to carve the remaining tree stumps into works of art. “My goal is to utilize the wood I have. I want to capitalize on its beauty, as well as its structure and form.”

Haspels is working now on a proposal for the carving of the stumps that he’ll submit to the hospital’s art committee in the next few weeks. “I’m developing some ideas for carving the stumps that revolve around a healing theme and a hospital theme. I’d like the carvings to relate with some of the other art in the hospital’s collection as well,” Haspels said.

Before the sculpture project can go forward, however, Haspels must secure funding for this long-term endeavor.

“We’re probably looking at getting private sponsors to fund the work,” Haspels said. Sculpting is Haspels full-time profession, and he’ll need to be compensated for the weeks and weeks of work of carving the stumps.

“I think it’s really unfortunate that the trees died, but it has presented our community with a unique opportunity because their location is in an ideal spot for viewing and appreciating,” said Haspels.

The hospital is investigating options for more fund-raising efforts for the wood sculptures, according to Kelly Johnson of the Mary Fisher Foundation. “It’s going to be a great way for the community to get involved in a truly monumental carving of those trees,” Johnson said.

For more information about how to get involved with fund-raising for the carving of the stumps, contact Johnson at Pagosa Mountain Hospital at 731-9545.

For more information about Chad Haspels’ art, visit

And for more information about climbing trees recreationally, call Chris Pierce at 731-3846 or 946-3925.

SUN photo/Anna Lauer Roy
One of the 70-foot pine trees on the grounds of Pagosa Mountain Hospital that had to be cut for safety reasons begins to fall to the ground. Crew members are pulling on a tagline, to help guide the tree’s fall.

SUN photo/Anna Lauer Roy
Three stumps left over from a recent tree cutting at Pagosa Mountain Hospital will soon be carved into wood sculptures with a healing theme by local artist Chad Haspels. This will only be possible with donations from the community.