RIO GRANDE NATIONAL FOREST — The maintenance of Colorado open lands takes dedicated work and time. Various organizations partner to create trails, complete mitigation projects and oversee the management of the forest in order to offer the best opportunities available. From fire mitigation to wildlife habitat improvement, everything that is done is done for a specific reason.
A current project nearing completion is at Bear Creek outside of South Fork. Behind the scenes, there are several projects underway to make the forest a versatile and enjoyable place for both wildlife and visitors. Many aspects come into play when managing a massive expanse of land like the Rio Grande National Forest. The Rio Grande National Forest is comprised of nearly 2 million acres. Bear Creek is a small portion compared to the larger forest but the work that is being completed on this portion of land can impact the bigger picture.
When one ventures into the Rio Grande National Forest, the one thing that stands out is the dead trees which are due to the Spruce Bark Beetle but looking into the forest there are many other things to consider. Rio Grande National Forest Wildlife Biologist Dale Gomez is front lining projects to help maintain and improve natural habitats for local large game wildlife and he has a crew in tow to make headway in improving forage in critical winter habitat.
Gomez has completed over 2,000 acres of tree thinning in areas where openings will provide for improved forage conditions for wintering mule deer and elk with the hope that they will have a place to feed without encroaching on private land and deter the animals from coming close to highways where interactions can be dangerous for all involved.
“We have worked in partnership with the Southwest Conservation Corps with the generous funding from the San Luis Valley Habitat Partnership Program,” Gomez stated. “We would not be able to do what we are doing without both entities. We have crews of eight chainsaw qualified individuals who come out and work with us to mitigate trees in specific areas to create and improve natural big game habitats. Our hope is to minimize big game impacts on private land and to keep these animals away from highways, like highway 160. We have been rather successful throughout the 20 years that I have been a part of this program and it’s amazing how much we have been able to do to benefit our natural ecosystems.”
The Southwest Conservation Corps works with young adults and youth to place them on projects like the one at Bear Creek. In addition to the tree thinning work that is being done, these workers also train to be youth crew leaders for future projects that take place throughout the Valley and neighboring forests during summer. Crew Leader Kiersten King helps Gomez oversee the projects and helps organize the crew throughout the hitch which typically lasts 5-10 days.
During this time, SCC members do as much work as possible and on this job have a goal of completing approximately nine acres. The focus is to remove encroaching Pinyon and Juniper and to remove smaller trees from around the base of larger Ponderosa Pines.
Ponderosa Pines are fire adapted due to their thick bark and other fire-resistant features. Removing smaller encroaching trees further helps to protect these trees in the instance of a forest fire. These trees are left for this reason. In the years to come, the debris or slash scatter, will deteriorate and become mulch for future plants that large game eat.
One species in particular, Mountain Mahogany, is a shrub that is highly sought out by mule deer to eat. It is dubbed the ice cream plant for these animals. Thinning projects such as this not only help mitigate lands for wildland fires but make room for plants like the Mountain Mahogany and Ponderosa Pines to grow.
Other projects like this happen throughout the forest during the summer months though it is often done with forest service crews. A grant through the San Luis Valley Habitat Partnership Program is helping pay for the crew on this project. The project will be completed by the end of this week.