Meeting set for Res Hill forest-thinning project


The proposed forest-thinning project for Reservoir Hill will be the topic of discussion at another public input meeting scheduled for next Monday, Nov. 17, at 5 p.m. in the Ross Aragon Community Center.

J. D. Kurz, a science teacher at Pagosa Springs High School, and his students will explain the results of research they did on Reservoir Hill concerning the conditions of the forest. Several of his students presented their findings to local governments last year, thereby sparking concern and becoming the catalyst for the project now being proposed.

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

The Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC), under the supervision of Parks Superintendent Jim Miller, has already done several small thinning projects in the past, with a crew of people on foot, using chainsaws. The work proposed by MSI will also use the machinery and crews from Forest Health Company for the flatter areas, while SCC crews will work on steeper sections.

“This project will be significantly larger in scale and efficiency,” Miller said, “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.”

On Oct. 4, Steve Hartvigsen, a forester with the Pagosa Ranger District, led a group of interested citizens on a walking tour of Reservoir Hill to discuss the health of the forest and explain what needs to be done to improve it.

Hartvigsen later clarified to SUN staff that he is not acting within his official capacity with the Pagosa Ranger District, but has volunteered his time and expertise to help out on the project.

Besides helping out with the public relations effort, of which the walking tour was a prime example, Hartvigsen will also contribute his scientific expertise and technical input once the project gets started.

Hartvigsen began his tour by presenting evidence suggesting that traditionally, before the European settlement of North America, ponderosa pine forests were accustomed to and dependent upon naturally occurring forest fires. Hartvigsen produced a piece of ponderosa pine, cut in such a way to highlight its cross-sectional rings, and pointed out evidence of fire scarring that occurred about every seven years.

While some in the group speculated this naturally occurring fire cycle was interrupted by the Forest Service’s fire suppression efforts, Hartvigsen explained evidence from tree rings throughout the western United States indicates the disruption occurred in the late 1700s.

The Forest Service didn’t begin to systematically fight forest fires until the early 1900s. However, European herd animals — sheep in particular — were introduced to America in the late 1700s. Sheep eat all of the understory and ground cover in a forest, preventing the natural, low-intensity fires that traditionally kept forests healthy.

Before the tour, Hartvigsen had marked a number of trees and tree stumps near the festival meadow with red ribbons. He then asked each of the 20 or so tour participants to stand next to one of these marked objects. Careful observation revealed these to be either large, old-growth trees or the remains of the same.

Hartvigsen explained this is how dense the forest would have been before European settlement occurred. He then asked the group to estimate how many smaller, younger trees were crowded into the area between the older trees. Fifteen to 20 would have been a conservative estimate.

All of these younger trees are pretty close to the same size, and Hartvigsen explained they were all part of the 1919 cohort. Some unusual, “perfect storm” set of circumstances occurred that year to create a massive sprouting of ponderosa pine saplings throughout the western U.S.

Hartvigsen then pointed out that all of these trees, both the old-growth trees and the younger generation, were competing for a finite amount of resources, and while sunlight and soil nutrients are vital, water is of particular concern, especially in times of drought.

Hartvigsen explained what happens to trees when a forest is attacked by a bark beetle infestation, how the trees use water to create sap, which they then use to actually push beetles back out through the holes they create. When there isn’t enough water to go around, trees are left defenseless.

The group then moved into another area where Hartvigsen had marked trees with blue ribbons. He explained these trees approximately represented the density, and the type, of trees he would recommend keeping. Any tree without a ribbon would be cut down and removed.

While Hartvigsen reiterated that this was just an example of what he would recommend — the project hasn’t even begun, so no official selection process has taken place yet — some members of the audience expressed concern.

Chrissy Karas from the town’s Historic Preservation Board in particular described work she had had done on her own property near Bayfield, relaying how emotionally upsetting it was to see the land after it was treated, knowing what it looked like before.

One concern for those involved in the project is that the public will have the same emotional reaction to thinning the Reservoir Hill forest if they don’t understand why it needs to be done.

Nevertheless, Hartvigsen explained the tree density represented by these blue ribbons still wasn’t truly healthy. It was a compromise between what would really allow the remaining trees to thrive and how much change he felt the public could stand to see in one fell swoop. To do the job right would require removing even more trees than what he had marked.

The last stop the group made was in the meadow behind the old log cabin. On the disc golf course, this is the fairway area for holes nine and 10, but festivalgoers would know it better as the area where the workshop tent is located.

Hartvigsen explained that this area, with its large, old-growth trees spaced well apart and a larger variety of different plant and animal species, is a perfect example of what all of Reservoir Hill should look like. This is a more natural, healthy section of forest. It is open, more park-like. The question became, what would it take to convince the public that this needs to happen.

Attempts in recent years to turn Reservoir Hill into a tourist attraction by placing a chairlift and other mechanized amusement rides in the park created quite an uproar in the community and demonstrated that most residents are sensitive to what happens up there.

Therefore, all interested citizens, especially those who missed the opportunity to take the walking tour, are encouraged to attend the meeting next Monday at 5 p.m. in the Community Center to get all the latest information.