Wilderness Wanderings: Beware of the ‘new normal’ for upper Sarvis Wilderness | SteamboatToday.com

Wilderness Wanderings: Beware of the ‘new normal’ for upper Sarvis Wilderness

Bob Korch
For the Steamboat Pilot & Today
Izzy Padilla, a member of the Yampa Ranger District trail crew, uses a chainsaw to cut charred trees from the Routt Divide Trail near the Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area.
Bob Korch

The Silver Creek Fire near Rabbit Ears Pass last summer has created a new normal, but not necessarily one that forest visitors are going to enjoy. 

Burning for four months, the fire charred 20,120 acres of our national forest and other lands, including approximately 7 miles of trails. Left in the aftermath are tens of thousands of dead and blackened trees.

Remember the “red pines” from the mountain pine beetle infestation 12 to 15 years ago? Large numbers of young lodgepole pines that are growing back in the wake of the beetle kill have been stressed and killed by the heat from the Silver Creek Fire. Still standing, many of these saplings now carry reddish-brown needles.

Joining those are the “black pines” — charcoal colored, charred trees both upright and lying on the ground. Areas of blackened yet still-standing trees look like a scene from one of those apocalypse movies where war or some other catastrophe has scorched everything in sight.

The fire also burned patches of ground, making it crunchy to walk on. Fortunately, it’s not total devastation because the fire burned in somewhat of a mosaic. So, there are still areas of unburned trees, shrubbery, lush green grass and other ground cover.

But back to the burned trees. Last week, five members of a U.S. Forest Service trail crew from the Yampa Ranger District began work on clearing downed trees from trails in this area. They were supplemented by a crew from Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.

Forest Service fire personnel from the Yampa and Steamboat Springs offices will also assist in the tree clearing.

For more

For up-to-date trail information, call the U.S. Forest Service in Steamboat Springs at 970-870-2299 or in Yampa at 970-638-4516. Or check the Routt County Trail Conditions Group page on Facebook.

It will be several weeks before all three trails in this area have been cleared of what has fallen thus far. Affected were 3 miles of the Routt Divide Trail and 2 miles each of the upper Sarvis and Silver Creek trails.

However, even when the trails have been cleared, visitors should expect that more trees will be falling and that they can do so at any time, even when the wind is calm. 

“We’re gonna stay on top of it, but we may have to do this 30 more times,” said John Anarella, recreation program manager of the Yampa Ranger District.

“Upper Silver and upper Sarvis are probably worse than the Routt. I’d advise giving it a few years before people hike them,” he said. 

For those hikers, hunters and other visitors who nevertheless plan to enter this area, Anarella suggests not to do so on a windy day and to be cautious otherwise. 

Also, they should do a 360-degree visual check when determining a place to stop and have lunch or especially to set up camp. They should avoid setting up near burned trees but also around beetle-killed and other hazard trees that may also fall at any time, he said. Stock users are advised to carry a handsaw.

This particular area of forest has had a series of devastating but natural events over the past two decades. 

In 2002, the Green Creek Fire burned more than 5,000 acres of the Sarvis Creek Wilderness and surrounding areas. “We’re still dealing with some of the things from that,” Anarella said. “It’s been a long-term impact here.”

The next blow was the mountain pine beetle epidemic, which devastated more than four million acres of the national forest, including Sarvis, throughout the first decade of the 2000s. 

“In the Sarvis Creek Wilderness, maybe 15% of the beetle-killed trees have fallen,” Anarella estimated. It is many of those dead but still-standing trees that are now burned and, as a result, have become more susceptible to falling. 

The Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area north of Steamboat is also in the early stages of deadfall from the beetle kill, but few visual clues remain of the devastating 2002 fire. 

Trees within the northern portion of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area are perhaps in the best shape of any forest in our region because they have been largely unaffected by fire and mass infestation in recent decades. 

For up-to-date trail information, call the Forest Service in Steamboat Springs at 970-870-2299 or in Yampa at 970-638-4516, or check the Routt County Trail Conditions Group page on Facebook.

Bob Korch is trail crew leader with Friends of Wilderness which assists the U.S. Forest Service in maintaining trails and educating the public about the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops Wilderness areas. For more information, visit friendsofwilderness.com.

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