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Stratton Open Space fire mitigation delayed after residents object to extreme treatment 

Branching out

click to enlarge Open space advocate Kent Obee pauses near a stand of maples that were 'mitigated.' - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Open space advocate Kent Obee pauses near a stand of maples that were 'mitigated.'

What looks like disaster to some shines as an example of best management practices to others. But whatever it's called, the city's mitigation of the wildland-urban interface on Stratton Open Space certainly changes the character of the property.

"It's not as magical as it was," says Kent Obee, former Parks Advisory Board member and longtime open space advocate.

The city's treatment, which carved out Gambel oak and brush and thinned countless trees, is designed to retard the spread of wildland fire and is grounded in "science that's pretty well accepted in the West," says city staff forester Dennis Will. It's also crucial work in a city where 45,000 properties lie in the wildland-urban interface.

In the past few months, city contractors finished restoring and mitigating 121 acres of Stratton. Then it ran into a buzz saw before tackling the last 8-acre stretch bordering Stratton Springs, which trickles past a deeply shaded trail corridor bursting with foliage. Just as residents who oppose the aggressive mitigation geared up for a fight to block work at that site, the city capitulated last week and put the segment on ice indefinitely.

Will told the Independent on May 19 the city's decision is grounded, in part, in deference to the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which discourages disruption of nesting birds between April and September. "The other part is," he says, "we didn't want to be immune to the public's concern. Since we have so much treatment around Stratton Springs, we'll let that simmer and see how [the mitigated area] recovers over the next few years."

Will and City Forester Jay Hein say the treated area is a mirror image of what a normal forest should look like. More than 100 years of public policy focusing largely on fire suppression have given rise to heavy growth on the forest floor and dense woodlands that allow sparks to rapidly spread into horrific conflagrations.

In the mid-1800s, a fire that started below Cheyenne Mountain burned all the way to Wilkerson Pass. The forest then recovered. But those kinds of fires that used to clear out underbrush now are suppressed, preventing nature's normal burn-recovery cycle.

"What we're trying to do is emulate what's ecologically sound for the Front Range," Will says. "This is what it looks like if we weren't interfering." And since it's impractical and risky to conduct prescribed burns in public open space, the city does that work mechanically.

While hand crews mitigated 165 acres of Stratton Open Space from 2007 to 2009, the recent 121-acre project used both hand crews and machinery, called masticators, tank-like vehicles that chew through trees and underbrush. Many trees posed a danger after insect larvae that grew under the tree bark killed their tops, leaving a "large fuel load in the air," meaning they were ripe for a fire, he says. What's left are fewer, but healthier trees, Will says.

But the masticators, which left deep ruts behind, alarmed open space advocates who say the work went too far. Those advocates also point to a stand of Rocky Mountain maple adjacent to the streamside section that was leveled.

Will acknowledges crews "went a little crazy" and misidentified the maple as Russian olive, but he predicts the maples will grow back — just as the chokecherry, Gambel oak and honeysuckle will gradually return. The city's goal for the 8-acre stream portion, he says, is to remove trees that block the sun so that plants that thrive on sunlight can flourish.

Debate over the remaining portion came to a head at a meeting of residents, parks officials and State Forest Service forester David Root on May 12. Those who attended tell the Indy that Root accused them of being "elitists" and threatened to pull state grant money if tree removal doesn't proceed as planned. (The state, which provides grant money to the city, has signed off on the city's restoration methods.)

Council President Richard Skorman says Root "lashed" into the residents, saying, "You're an elite group that doesn't represent the community." Obee and others also report Root was "insulting."

The meet-up was provocative enough that city parks employee Kurt Schroeder apologized to residents, according to Parks Director Karen Palus.

Later asked about the fuss by the Independent, Root admitted the meeting "got a little heated."

"It's a pretty emotional subject when people's lives and property are at risk," he says. "Personally, I've seen a lot of pain and suffering due to wildfire. And it involves more than just somebody's personal perception of a recreational experience."

Root says he told residents if the streamside work didn't meet state standards, the city might not get state grant money for that or future projects. "I told them it didn't seem to me I was seeing support for the work city forestry was doing or stewardship of the land in general."

If approved by the state, the city could recover $105,000 of its $186,900 Stratton project cost.

Root, who praises the city's mitigation of Stratton, notes that forest overgrowth translates to a threat to life and property. "You don't want a fuel ladder that would take that into the tops of the trees," he says, "where it would become uncontrollable and where that would be lethal to any firefighter."

In the past dozen years, the Parks Department has spent about $2.2 million on mitigation work, a pittance compared to expenses associated with fighting fires, Root says. Those costs for the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012, for example, totaled $18 million, while damage was estimated at about $350 million with the loss of 345 homes in the city's northwest. Two people died.

But there's no denying the city's project makes Stratton a completely different place. As Obee leads the way on a trail through Stratton Open Space, he points out trees marked with blue dots. Those are to be spared the axe whenever the final 8 acres are treated.

He's glad the project is on hold, but remains displeased that hundreds of trees, including a rare one-seed juniper, were destroyed in the restoration project. The work converted trails sheltered by vegetation, where hikers could feel alone in the woods, to wide-open expanses where it's hard to feel solitary, Obee says.

"I think they want to mitigate every square inch of every open space we have," Obee laments, noting stands of ponderosa monocultures that replaced a kaleidoscope of flora. "I'm not against mitigation, but it's just that this is excessive."

Skorman says residents might have been agitated because of their protective feelings for Stratton — the first acreage purchased with the city's Trails, Open Space and Parks tax approved by voters in 1997, for which citizens themselves raised $1.5 million to match city funds.

"People have a passion for that particular piece of land," he says.

Calling the city's delay on the 8 acres the right call, Skorman says he hopes the encounter showed the city that its one public meeting held in January about the Stratton project might not have been adequate. He also emphasized his support of wildland mitigation, though he notes other components also play into public safety — such as early detection, evacuation plans and firefighting.

He also says he favors working harder at balancing interests. "As we move forward to future projects," he says, "we want to compromise — to keep that recreational experience and still accomplish the fire mitigation goals."

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