By Paul Blackman
Special to The SUN
With the help from numerous partners, volunteers, permittees and other community members, the Pagosa Ranger District managed to clear 85 percent of its summer trails during the 2019 season.
This amounts to over 400 miles of trail cleared of beetle-killed spruce trees, avalanche fields, rockslides and other downfall.
This banner year for trail work — complicated by a heavy snow load and late melt-off in the high country — could not have happened without the dedication and contributions from so many individuals and groups, both within and outside the Forest Service.
Faced with an increasingly daunting task of trying (unsuccessfully) to keep up with the extent of downfall on its trails, the district welcomed the assistance offered by partners and groups in coming up with additional resources to address the overwhelming situation. While the Pagosa District has received help from external sources in performing trail maintenance for many years, by the end of the 2018 season it became apparent that ground was (literally) being lost in the effort to keep its system trails open. A new or modified approach to the problem was clearly called for.
Starting in earnest in December of 2018, district personnel began to revisit trail data, conduct extensive analyses to gain potential work efficiencies and to hold regular meetings with core community members dedicated to addressing the problem. A detailed strategy was ultimately developed for the 2019 season and beyond, which aimed to have all Pagosa District trails opened within three years: an ambitious goal, given that at the time roughly only 50 percent of district trails were free from obstructions and conditions appeared to be worsening.
By spring of 2019, the initial planning and analysis efforts documenting the extremely difficult field conditions appeared to be paying off, as additional funding for trail work was provided to the district in the form of grants, awards, increased forest and regional-level allocations for crews and other types of support.
Crews were eager to begin the heavy lifting in May, only to be delayed several weeks due to heavy snowpack. Reconnaissance flights and early trail scouting indicated numerous extensive avalanches that would further compound the undertaking. Concerns were mounting that, despite the additional resources and strategic planning, actual progress on the ground could be considerably curtailed.
With the majority of crews now having left for the season, field data collected during the summer has revealed accomplishments above and beyond some of the rosiest predictions made during the spring. All told, 6,300 trees were cleared from trails (3,300 by cross-cut saw), 406 miles of trail were opened, more than 3,050 hours of volunteer and partner labor were logged, and only 15 percent of the district’s trails are currently obstructed by downfall.
Next year will again present significant challenges, as beetle-killed trees will continue to fall on trails for years to come. But, additional financial and other resources are being lined up for the future — including a new partnership with Wolf Creek Ski Area and the National Forest Foundation wherein a portion of season ticket proceeds will be donated to fund youth trail crews.
The district is optimistic that with continuing support and ongoing refinements to its program of work for trails, it can reach the goal of clearing all summer trails in the next two years and keeping them open for years to come.