Road to recovery
Forest Service, youth corps' efforts plant new life in burned forest
Steamboat Springs — North Routt is a Colorado postcard.
Rugged peaks dot the horizon. Before them are vast aspen groves beginning their golden transformation against a blue sky. Century-old spruce and pine trees tower above bubbling creeks.
The Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest, which extends from Wyoming into North Routt County and farther south, is a sanctuary for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts.
On a recent September morning, the transition from summer to fall was under way. Fresh snow and crisp air indicated winter was close behind.
U.S. Forest Service supervisory forester Andy Cadenhead turned a mint-green SUV off Seedhouse Road and onto the narrow Lost Dog Road. Cadenhead joked that he didn’t know where the road got its name because he wasn’t sure who lost a dog. He did know the road climbs and winds its way to Diamond Park.
In this remote area near the west border of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, thousands of trees were leveled during the 1997 Routt Divide Blowdown, a freakish and violent windstorm with gusts estimated at 120 miles per hour. In the Diamond Park area, those trees not logged after the Blowdown went up like tiki torches during the 2002 Hinman fire.
Thousands of charred tree trunks still stand disfigured, jutting through the snow like black candles atop a white-frosted cake.
They represent the death of a forest.
Four years have passed since lightning ignited the Hinman and Burn Ridge fires in North Routt. An estimated 30,000 acres of national forest land burned in a matter of months during both blazes.
“These two fires were high intensity, especially in the Blowdown area,” Cadenhead said. “It was pretty much black on black. There were entire drainages that were nothing but black. Blowdown, fires and beetle epidemics are the main disturbances in our forest. They are the main things that help our old forests become new forests.”
On Tuesday, signs of a rebirth were visible.
Golden aspen trees and young, green spruce and pine trees poked their leaves toward the sky. Grasses and weeds have flourished.
Nature was finding a way, but nature won’t be the only means by which this area of national forest will thrive again.
Forest Service employees and members of the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps spent the past two weeks planting an estimated 45,000 Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine trees in the burn area. The revegetation would have started in the spring, but the Forest Service did not receive the seedlings in time. Cadenhead found out in November 2005 that he was going to run into revegetation issues, so he promptly booked the RMYC for two weeks.
The cost to the Forest Service was $5,680 a week for a crew of eight or nine young adults.
“It’s a bargain,” Cadenhead said. “There is no way we could have done this without the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.”
Before arriving to work in North Routt, a majority of the RMYC workers built new trails along the Continental Divide in southern Colorado.
“They come with an enormous amount of expertise and safety training,” said Sheila Wright, development director with the RMYC. “This crew, in particular, is amazingly cohesive and seems to get along very well.”
They also work hard.
In 10 days, with the help of several Forest Service foresters, the crew planted more than two-thirds of the 66,000 seedlings that need to be planted.
The Forest Service will plant any leftover seedlings in the next seven to 10 days.
“It will be up to us to finish the job,” Cadenhead said. “We’ll keep at it until it’s done or we’re snowed out.”
Forest Service forester Jeff Hartling is supervising the work. He is known for his impressive 90 percent success rate with seedlings. In some cases, it is more common for young trees to die than to live, Cadenhead said.
Hartling is responsible for ensuring the trees live until nature kills them.
On Tuesday morning, workers dug holes about 10 inches deep before planting the seedlings. There was approximately 9 feet between each tree. They were small enough that workers and visitors had to be careful not to step on someone else’s handiwork.
The frozen soil and snowfall made the tree planting more difficult, but there were no disgruntled faces on any of the Forest Service or RMYC members.
“The soil moisture right now is superb,” said Steve Orange, a tree planter and Forest Service employee. “It’s like night and day from last week.”
Of course, Wright’s face usually brings a smile to RMYC members. She represents baked goods – chocolate and peanut butter bars on Tuesday – and mail.
Brian Rogers received yet another package.
“We’re gonna start calling you the ‘catalogue queen,'” Wright joked.
There is a level of pride RMYC members have for the work they do and what they are giving back to the environment, Wright said.
In the case of revegetating the national forest, the RMYC members said they will remember the luxurious campsite – each member had his or her own picnic table and secluded area to pitch his or her tent – and the mid-September snowfall.
“It was really exciting to see snow,” said Katie McGurk, a RMYC member from Austin, Texas. “It was beautiful.”
The road to forest recovery is a rocky one.
The SUV shifted its weight back and forth as Cadenhead maneuvered it through potholes and over pebbles, stones and rocks too big for a human to lift.
Cadenhead is well versed in what happened to the Routt National Forest during the 2002 Hinman Fire.
Area residents likely remember the summer of 2002 for the thick haze that hovered over the Yampa Valley floor. Steamboat Springs literally was choked by fires that summer – as was much of Colorado.
But it was the Hinman and Burn Ridge fires that received the most publicity in this part of the state, largely because structures were threatened in North Routt. Fuel for the Hinman Fire was readily available thanks to downed trees infested with beetles.
It has been four years since lightning ignited an easy target.
“The fires started in July of 2002,” Cadenhead said. “Odd winds out of the northeast pushed the fire toward the Seedhouse area. It was unusual. Normally, the winds would be from the south or west.”
He remembers resources being depleted because wildfires were burning throughout the western half of the country, not just in Colorado.
But the crews had the Hinman Fire contained within a month, and attention shifted toward the growing Burn Ridge Fire, which was on the opposite side of Seedhouse Road.
“We had extreme conditions one day with relative humidity in single digits, temps in the 90s up here and strong winds out of the west,” Cadenhead said. “The Burn Ridge started to take off, so did the ones in Sarvis Creek and the Flat Tops. Then, we saw a puff of smoke at the Hinman, and it turned into something we could not control.”
Thousands of acres were burned in hours. The Hinman and Burn Ridge fires each burned approximately 15,000 acres, and “half that total came in that single day,” Cadenhead said.
By October, both were contained. By November, they were controlled.
Loggers came in to remove trees, and locals obtained permits to cut firewood, which still is readily available in the Diamond Park area.
The snow that put out the fires four years ago has returned. Seasons have changed, and years have passed. In general, the Routt National Forest appears to be recovering well. Areas of hydrophobic soil still are being found, which is atypical, Cadenhead said. But the fires burned with such intensity, they literally made the soil repel water.
The revegetation will help the area return to a normal state, although it isn’t an overnight process.
“The lodgepoles that died and burned were 100 years old,” Cadenhead said. “In 10 years, this will look like a young forest with trees that are 6 to 10 feet tall. It will look like a mature forest in 60 years.”
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