Animas Mountain thinning project to start on Aug. 26

A kinder and gentler cut begins next week on Animas Mountain. The Bureau of Land Management will start thinning to mitigate wildfire hazard at the popular recreation area on Thursday, Aug. 26. The “compromise solution” promises fewer impacts on recreationists and the mountain itself.

The Forest Service and BLM have a mandate to thin trees in the Wildland Urban Interface, the edge of the forest near communities and homes. As incentive, the agencies are offered a generous “use it or lose it” funding stream for such projects. In response, San Juan Forest and BLM lands in the vicinity of Durango have been aggressively treated in recent years. The local agencies use three approaches to curbing fire threat – prescribed burning, hand thinning and hydromowing, where a large spinning drum with carbide teeth shreds small trees and brush. Hydromowing has been used extensively in the Grandview Ridge, Hermosa Creek and Hidden Valley areas but drawn mixed public reactions after each application.

Early in 2007, the BLM announced that Animas Mountain – one of Durango’s most popular recreation areas for hiking, biking and climbing – would be the next area to go beneath the hydromower blade. The resource is also surrounded on three sides by homes and was identified in the La Plata County Community Fire Plan as an area of high concern and risk.

“If lightning strikes and a fire runs over Animas Mountain,” said Shawna Legarza, Fire Management Officer. “It’s going to be bad for everyone. Homes would be threatened, the mountain would be ruined aesthetically, and we’d be dealing with impacts from run-off and erosion for decades.”

The BLM’s original plan entailed treating the mountain’s 1,900 acres with hydromowing and building a road over a large piece of the trail. This incited strong public reactions and made for one the great local controversies of 2007.

Early this spring, the BLM offered a new approach to thinning Animas. Responding to dozens of concerns, the agency unveiled its “mini-mower” alternative, which proposes pairing a smaller hydromower with hand-thinning. Under the new plan, only minor trail maintenance will be needed.

Beginning next Thursday, trail users can expect to encounter crews and temporary closures of small sections of the trail. Closure areas will be staggered to offer alternate routes, informational signs and maps will be posted, and a BLM representative will patrol trails near the work activity to answer questions.

“This project was a long time in the planning, and we’re happy to see the work starting,” said Matt Janowiak, BLM Columbine Field Office Manager. “Our goal is to wrap this up and get the machines and crews off the mountain as soon as is safely possible.”

The work will continue through the fall, and trails that are impacted by project activities will be restored to their prior condition.

Spruce beetle invasion continues spread

A host of unwelcome residents are steadily spreading through Southwest Colorado. As the spruce beetle invasion makes its way through the Weminuche Wilderness, nearby Hinsdale County is bracing for impact. The outbreak that has already impacted more than 400,000 acres in the region since it began in 2003.

The Ptarmigan Meadows subdivision south of Lake City recently became concerned about the rapid spread of the beetles. In July, the community’s residents enacted a policy to improve the health of the surrounding forest and help fortify it against beetle attacks.  At the heart of the policy was the creation of an open public burn area to provide incentive for the landowners to remove fallen trees and thin dense stands. The Ptarmigan Meadows plan also includes strategies to create defensible space around homes in the community to address fire danger.

Areas around Creede and South Fork have also become major spruce beetle concerns, according to Gunnison District Forester

Tim Cudmore. “Spruce beetle outbreaks tend to happen in remote, high-elevation forests and don’t get as much public attention as mountain pine beetles,” Cudmore said. “But this is a very serious issue.”

Beetles have now killed nearly 100 percent of the trees in most mature Engelmann spruce stands in southern Hinsdale and Mineral counties. The beetles, which are on the edge of La Plata County, are now continuing their expansion, primarily to the east toward Rio Grande County.

FLC Foundation marks economic recovery

The glory days have returned for the Fort Lewis College Foundation, the main fundraising arm of the local college. Last week, the foundation has marked a full recovery from the recent economic downturn.

Just two years ago, the foundation faced the same economic downturn as the rest of the country and the hit was significant: 26.5 percent, or $3.5 million, of the foundation’s investment portfolio vanished. Last week, the foundation announced that the wallet is back to pre-recession levels. All of the 26.5 percent loss has been regained, and the individual funds that lost money have returned to pre-economic downturn levels. In addition, earnings allocations for fiscal year have returned to pre-downturn levels and a $1.25 million reserve has been established.

“In the 40-some years that the foundation has existed, we never had a hit such as the one in 2008, and I hope we never see another,” said Jim Foster, chair of the Fort Lewis College Foundation Board of Directors.

The foundation handles everything from college departmental accounts to student scholarship funds. The group also recently raised $5 million to finance enhancements to the College’s Student Union.

Durango Gay Mountain Fest postponed

Durango Gay Mountain Fest is slipping onto the back burner until 2011. Event organizers recently announced that the gay mountain biking festival would be postponed due to lack of interest.

“The unique celebration” was originally set for Sept. 9-12 and designed to offer a summer alternative to popular Colorado Gay Ski Weeks. However, out-of-town registrations have been virtually non-existent and organizers are postponing until next June in order to drum up a large national marketing campaign.  

The hope is that Durango Gay Mountain Fest will eventually evolve into a weeklong event, showcasing Durango’s broad range of mountain-based activities.  

– Will Sands




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