By Lisa Nelson
Special to The SUN
It takes a village, or rather a town like Pagosa Springs, to pull together the resources needed to help keep trails open on the San Juan National Forest.
In late 2017, a group of concerned trail users got together with the Pagosa Ranger District of the San Juan National Forest to address what all agree is a crisis situation. The issue: Access to the forest is threatened by the huge number of downed spruce-beetle-killed trees that block forest trails.
This group, representing outfitters and guides, the Pagosa Area Trails Council (PATC) and San Juan Back Country Horsemen (SJBCH), understands that neither the Forest Service nor volunteers have the workforce capacity to clear all the trails on which trees fall faster than they can be cut out. So, the group organized the Wilderness Trails Forever Campaign, under the administration of the nonprofit PATC, to raise funds to hire help to clear backcountry trails.
In just six months, the campaign raised nearly $28,000 from a March banquet and auction hosted by the sportsman’s advocacy group BigGame Forever. The campaign raised another $4,600 from a tack sale in May sponsored by the SJBCH and about $2,000 in online donations. More than 80 businesses, organizations, individuals and anonymous donors contributed to the financial success of the campaign. The majority of donations came from Pagosa Springs, but also included contributions from out-of-state patrons who appreciate the recreational and hunting opportunities on the San Juan National Forest. One hundred percent of the money raised is dedicated to trail clearing.
“Making a difference on our local trails begins with community,” noted Dick Ray, chair of the Wilderness Trails Forever Committee. “The committee was a success because of a group of untiring volunteers who grasped the magnitude of the problem and made it their vision and mission to find a positive solution.”
As a result of the fundraising effort, an eight-person Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC) crew was contracted to clear trees for four weeks this summer.
Just this month (October), the SCC received a check for $26,000 from the PATC for clearing 545 trees in 24 miles along the West Fork and Williams Creek trails. The SCC crew also performed trail rehab and maintenance on the Continental Divide Trail above Williams Lake.
“SCC was a life-saver,” said Tyler Albers, Pagosa Ranger District trail crew lead.
Their work allowed the Forest Service trail crew to focus on clearing other trails, he noted.
Kevin Heiner, associate director of the SCC, said the crews are first provided with crosscut saw and wilderness first-aid certifications to start their season.
“From there, they pack into the wilderness to take on ‘cut and run’ work, clearing trails as they bump camp ever further into the wilderness. Our crews return tired from their field hitches, but full of stories and experiences that only wilderness provides … It is all a learning experience through national service to our public lands,” Heiner said.
In addition to the SCC work, Forest Service crews cleared 2,000 trees this year and volunteers cleared more than 1,800 trees on many forest trails.
“Between the community fundraising efforts and the extensive volunteer hours devoted to the hard physical labor associated with removing downed trees, numerous trails were cleared that otherwise would not have been,” said Paul Blackman, recreation staff officer on the Pagosa Ranger District. “It really was a remarkable feat.”
This effort is all the more significant given the challenge of the first-ever closure of the San Juan National Forest this summer due to drought and fire danger, as well as the reassignment of Forest Service Trail Crew members to firefighting duty for several weeks.
Another major challenge was that more trees have fallen this year than last year. As a result of the spruce beetle epidemic that struck southwest Colorado in 2005, nearly 90 percent of the spruce-fir forest was dead by 2015, and the number of trees falling across the trails continues to increase, according to Albers.
“We have 194 miles of trail in the wilderness and in some areas, we have discovered 60 trees per mile across the trail,” Albers said. “I see the numbers continuing to rise in the Weminuche Wilderness for the next five years. The trees in the South San Juan Wilderness have died more recently, so the greatest amount of down trees in the South San Juan will be in five years,” he noted.
Downed trees in designated wilderness areas must be cut out with non-mechanized tools, such as crosscut saws and axes. The San Juan National Forest is unique with its vast number of very large spruce trees and sometimes it can take an hour or more to cut out one 40-inch-diameter tree, according to Albers.
The end result is that only about 50 percent of wilderness trails were cleared in 2017 and in 2018.
“Unfortunately, the trees will continue to fall for some time and, despite the work of dedicated partners, volunteers and Forest Service crews, we are concerned that as some lesser-used trails receive little attention, simply locating them becomes difficult, not to mention the massive effort required to reclaim them after years of downfall,” Blackman said. “So, this fall and winter, we’ll be looking at different ways to both sustain our current clearing levels, as well as address these lesser-used but heavily impacted trails before it’s too late.”
The Forest Service and the PATC are committed to seeking grants to support future trail work.
“The PATC has about $8,200 in reserve from the 2018 fundraising campaign, which we will leverage for future matching grants,” explained Bob Milford, PATC president.
“PATC advocates for all trail user groups in Pagosa Springs and, as such, we feel it is our responsibility to do all we can, including exploring alternative strategies, to protect our trails.”
“The task at hand is huge,” noted Larry Smith, president of the SJBCH, “but volunteers will continue to do their part because the bottom line is, these are our public lands and our goal is to keep these trails accessible to all trail users.”
Anyone interested in donating funds to help clear nonmotorized backcountry trails on the Pagosa Ranger District can go to pagosatrails.org and click on “Wilderness Campaign” to make a contribution.
By Lisa Nelson