Though he's charged with protecting wild spaces, Colorado Springs City Forester Dennis Will speaks with ardor about cutting down trees.
"I'm looking out my window at North Cheyenne Cañon [Park] right now, and it's just a carpet of forest out there," he says with evident dismay.
If Will had his way, the park would go from having as many as 100 trees per acre to just 30 to 75. While that lush forest is beautiful, Will says the park isn't meant to support so much greenery. Overgrowth puts the area at risk for fire and other hazards.
His department has done significant mitigation projects in the park recently, but rains spurred new growth, and Will says finding the funds to maintain work that's already been completed once is a challenge.
If a fire did sweep down the Cañon, it could be a disaster of epic proportions. Steep slopes would make it difficult to fight. Homes, businesses and major parts of the city's water system would be at risk. Floods would likely follow, carrying huge loads of sediment from the erosive granite hillsides. The Cañon/Bear Creek area is also home to the threatened greenback cutthroat trout, which might not survive such a calamity.
A fire in the Cañon is a real risk any year, but this year could be sketchier than most if overgrowth from the wet 2015 spring dries out, or if moths infesting the Cañon and surrounding areas kill off a lot of trees. Not a lot can be done to lower those risks: Due to steep slopes, only a few hundred acres of the 1,600-acre park can be mitigated for fire.
And city forestry has a $0 operational budget, depending largely on grants to do any work.
North Cheyenne Cañon is just one of many problems. Will says Colorado Springs has the largest wildland-urban interface of any city in the state of Colorado. According to the city's 2011 Community Wildfire Protection Plan, the interface totals 28,800 acres. To put this in perspective, 24 percent of the city's population lives in the wildland-urban interface.
And, as the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire showed, the interface can go from beautiful to scary very quickly.
After two major recent fires in the area, you might think Colorado Springs is pouring money into fire prevention, but that's not the case.
In 2013, following the Waldo Canyon Fire, then-Mayor Steve Bach gave city forestry a one-time supplemental budget of $1 million for fire-reduction efforts in the interface. The money was gone by late 2014, but it helped forestry complete or chip away at many of its highest priority projects. Will has since relied on grants.
The city fire department also has a modest budget, used to leverage grants for mitigation — $194,000 from the Public Safety Sales Tax annually.
Comparatively, however, Amy Sylvester, wildfire mitigation program coordinator for the city fire department, says her program is "one of the most robust programs nationally," with 4.5 full-time positions. Sylvester says when she attends major conferences, she often hears other cities have little or no dedicated funding for wildfire mitigation. (Meanwhile, the city has upped its spending on fire mitigation over the years. The department received just $84,800 for such mitigation in 2006.)
Much of the work done by the city's fire department is on private lands. For instance, it provides wood-chipping services to 110 neighborhoods a year that opt to mitigate their properties. This year it received three grants worth a total of $170,000 to help private homeowners perform mitigation; to mitigate 16 acres near the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; and to conduct mitigation work in Peregrine and University Park Open Spaces.
Another major player is Colorado Springs Utilities. Its infrastructure runs through the interface, and thus, preventing another major fire is in its best interest. Utilities' budget for such mitigation was increased from $250,000 to $1.5 million after the Waldo Canyon Fire, according to Eric Howell, Utilities' forest program manager.
Utilities treats 1,000 to 1,500 acres per year currently and plans to begin treating as many as 3,000 acres a year in the near future. In order to achieve its mitigation goals, Utilities maintains partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado State Forest Service, the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, Pikes Peak Fire Learning Network, the Colorado Springs Forestry Division and the Colorado Springs Fire Department.
While Utilities' contribution is significant, most of its money is spent on watersheds outside the city. Utilities sets aside $75,000 to help match grants procured by the city's fire and forestry departments.
City forestry received two grants in 2015: $105,000 from Colorado State Forest Service for mitigation work in Stratton Open Space, and $81,400 from the Department of Natural Resources for mitigation in the Bear Creek Canyon Park. Matches were provided by Utilities, city fire, city parks and recreation, and credit for a part of Will's salary. Those are typical sources of matching funds for Will, who sometimes receives small contributions from the city's Trails, Open Space, and Parks-dedicated sales tax, if he works on properties purchased with TOPS funds, such as Red Rock Canyon Open Space.
Will says he's proud of the work his department has been able to do over the last decade. But there's still a major need for more mitigation, which he says falls behind other city-funded priorities, like stormwater and roads — meaning he doesn't get funding.
"This stuff is hideously expensive," he says, explaining that mitigation can cost $500 to $4,000 per acre.
Still, he says, even a small budget would allow him to do more.
"It's difficult for me to have any sustainable forest-management practices because I never know where my money's going to come from," he says. "Everyone's in a dog fight to get their share of the budget, and I get that. It's just that we'd like to have a little bit too."
Asked about forestry's nonexistent maintenance budget, Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition, acknowledges the city's challenges, but says she still finds it shocking.
"Isn't it just ridiculous?" she says. "It's crazy."
There is one high-dollar forest project that is funded.
The city, working with privative land owners, plans to spray North Cheyenne Cañon Park, Blodgett Peak, Bear Creek Cañon Park, Seven Falls, some El Pomar lands, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and possibly the NORAD area in early June. The spray will target two types of moths: the tussock moth and the Western Spruce Budworm. The moths, which are native to the area, have reached epidemic levels. That's a problem, because the larval moths feed on certain spruce and fir trees, defoliating them. While a strong tree might be able to survive losing part of its foliage, or even all of its foliage, for a single year, repeat attacks sap the tree's strength and kill it.
The area will be sprayed with a bacteria commonly found in soil, foliage, wildlife, water, and air. It kills moths and butterflies if they feed on impacted plants while in their larval stage. The city is currently looking for a contractor, and doesn't know the exact cost of the spraying, though Will says the city's share will likely be hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In the months to come, Will says he will host public and neighborhood meetings about the spraying, and develop a website with plenty of information about the bacteria.
Of course, it's hard to overlook the irony of the planned spraying: The city is spending money to save trees in an area overgrown with them. But killing off a forest isn't the same as thinning one: It leaves behind dry carcasses, encouraging fire rather than discouraging it.
Saving these trees, Will says, is worth the trouble. If only there weren't so many of them.
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