Public meeting set for Reservoir Hill thinning project

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While the Pagosa Springs Town Council continues to express support for the proposed forest-thinning project on Reservoir Hill, after a recent walking tour revealed the scope of the planned work, it became evident the town needs to have a formal contract of some kind with the parties involved.

At a work session held last week to discuss the 2015 budget for the town’s Parks and Recreation Department, Town Manager Greg Schulte explained he had done additional research, based on some prompting from council member David Schanzenbaker, into how the thinning project had gotten to this point.

“Based on what I’ve seen,” Schulte argued, “there is a little bit of paperwork, I hate to say, that we need to do.”

The town’s parks and recreation director, Tom Carosello, reported to town council last week that he had talked to Aaron Kimple from the Mountain Studies Institute (MSI), who agreed, and promised to develop a formal MOU for town council’s approval.

In March, town council was asked to write a letter of support for a grant application MSI was submitting to do some thinning on Reservoir Hill. As a result, MSI was recently awarded $63,531 from the Colorado Forest Restoration Grant Program.

Schulte, along with Town Clerk April Hessman, went back and reviewed the minutes — and then listened to the actual recording — from the March meeting when the letter of support was discussed.

“There was no vote taken,” Schulte confirmed during the Oct. 21 work session, “and there was a very short letter of support that was written. Really, that is the only documentation we have between the town and the entity doing the thinning on Reservoir Hill.

“That’s not to say it isn’t a good idea or that we shouldn’t be doing it, but this entity should have town council’s permission to do the work on the town’s property.”

“Yes, we do need to do that,” Mayor Don Volger agreed, “but one thing I do want to say is I haven’t heard a lot of controversy over this issue. Thanks to The SUN for providing accurate information about what we are looking at doing, why we are looking at doing it, and what the experts are saying. That information to the public has been exceptional.”

Schulte said a memorandum of understanding (MOU) should be written up, spelling out exactly what work will be done, how it will be done, and what will happen with the wood that comes off the hill as a result of the thinning project.

The plan, as it stands now, is to have J.R. Ford’s Forest Health Company do the mechanical thinning on the top of the hill. However, Ford’s equipment will not work on steeper terrain, so volunteers from the Southwest Conservation Corps will do the thinning work on the sides of the hill by hand.

Schanzenbaker had previously pointed out that the wood from the hill belongs to the town, and Schulte added that town council will need to make some decisions about what it wants to happen with it.

Ford explained that because of the way his equipment works and the process they use while thinning a forest, most of the underbrush, branches and smaller trees are run through a chipper instead of getting piled up for later burning, as is standard operating procedure for traditional thinning projects. This allows the equipment to continue moving through the forest.

Ford has agreed to haul all of the wood chips provided by his operation to the town yard, but the question is, what to do with any usable saw logs. Many of the trees that are hand-thinned by the SCC may also be usable as saw logs.

The SCC has already done several small thinning projects in the past. In those cases, Jim Miller from the parks and rec department had the crews place the wood at the edge of the Spa trailhead parking area and any town resident in need of firewood could pick it up from there free of charge.

“This project will be significantly larger in scale and efficiency,” Miller said, comparing the MSI proposal to what has been done in the past, “but it also has the possibility of being larger in impact, aesthetically, and so the outreach to the community has been significantly larger than any of these decisions that have been made in the past.”

Steve Hartvigsen, a forester with the Pagosa Ranger District who has volunteered his expertise to the project during his off-duty hours, led a walking tour of the hill on Oct. 4, explaining why the forest should be thinned and what it might look like afterwards.

This tour was well attended by the public, including Schanzenbaker. During last week’s budget meeting, Schanzenbaker encouraged his fellow councilors to attend the next MSI meeting.

This week, Miller confirmed that another opportunity for the public to learn about the proposed project and provide feedback will be on Nov. 17 at 5 p.m. in the Ross Aragon Community Center.

Miller added that he had talked to J.D. Kurz, who had promised to attend the meeting. Kurz teaches science at Pagosa Springs High School, and it was his class that first brought this issue to light.

Several of his students spoke to local governments last year, presenting the results of research they had done concerning the health of the Reservoir Hill forest. Their conclusion was that the hill is dangerously overcrowded.

Kurz said some of these students may also attend the Nov. 17 meeting.