Michael Comora squats next to a large stump, tracing his fingers along its rings — over 200 by his count.
The loss of this juniper is perhaps what's stuck most in his mind about the transformation of the high desert forest near the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. But the house painter and photographer notices more changes as he hikes down trails he's trekked for over a decade.
He remembers how Gamble oak once shaded the single-track during summer months. He recalls thick stands of trees that insulated Austin Bluffs Open Space, otherwise known as University Park, from the city surrounding it.
These days, the forest is dominated by larger trees, mostly ponderosas, and a few smaller ones. There is an occasional clump of Gamble oak. Wood chips cover the ground.
Comora watched the Waldo Canyon Fire from this park. When he noticed crews chopping through the wilderness, he assumed they were here to prevent another fire. He quipped that the city could simply cut down all the trees and pave over the hillsides if it wanted to be truly safe.
So Comora was surprised to hear that the work he saw wasn't fire mitigation. While the city has been working with landowners to do that, Fire Marshal Brett Lacey says there are no current fire mitigation projects in city open spaces. Rather, city forestry is doing "forest restoration," trying to return the hillsides to what they would look like if humans hadn't suppressed fires here for decades.
Restoration aims to discourage the spread of fire but also focuses on other goals, like returning biodiversity to a forest, increasing the health of native plants and trees, and rooting out invasive species. Dennis Will, staff forester, says overgrowth in Austin Bluffs Open Space has harmed forest health.
Comora says he still doesn't like what workers have been doing.
"I think that if the forest is going to die from a blight, it's going to die from a blight," he says. "Kind of like what's happening in a good percentage of the high Rockies ... it's nature."
A return to nature
Will says insect infestations aren't really natural on the level we've seen them.
The absence of fire and prolonged drought have led to such devastating outbreaks. When he sends crews into open-space parks to thin out trees, remove dead brush, and chip the dead stuff, he's trying to replicate some of the beneficial effects of those fires.
Last year, the city directed $1 million to city forestry for this sort of work, Will says. That's more money than the department has seen in ages, but he says it got eaten up quickly: With about 185 acres treated, the department only has about $200,000 left. The city had targeted more than 470 acres to treat with the money.
Will says the discrepancy is easily explained: The work is tedious and expensive. Foresters have to select and mark trees that will stay. Contractors then must remove the other trees. While the wood chips left behind are meant to prevent erosion, they can't remedy ripped-up ground left by heavy equipment, so paths are chosen carefully.
Foresters must also consider which trees to save, he explains. Take that old juniper that Comora treasured: Will says it was probably cut to save a ponderosa. Bushier growth underneath those trees weakens them, and also can serve as "ladder fuel" in a fire, helping the blaze into the upper branches of the trees.
Will says science informs most decisions, but he also considers how a park will look when mitigation is complete.
"I feel like we have multiple objectives here," he says. "It's not just forest restoration, it's not just fuels management, and it's not just insects and diseases. It's aesthetics."
The idea is to create a healthier ecosystem that's more fire-resistant, but also beautiful. Will says he thinks his department achieves that most of the time, saying public comments are usually "90 to 95 percent" positive. And people seem more satisfied after months pass, as they notice wildflower blooms, wild grasses and herbaceous plants returning.
"If we could be patient and allow the sites to recreate what would normally happen," he says, "I think people would go, 'Oh wow, that's so much better.'"
Coming to your area
Reforestation work is being done in Palmer Park, where Will says about 80 percent of the Gamble oak has been killed by borers. Thinning is concentrated near picnic tables and parking lots, where fire risk is highest. Mile High Youth Corps is helping city forestry in Ute Valley Park and Red Rock Canyon Open Space, also clearing dead oak.
City forestry's biggest project, however, is planned for 76 acres in North Cheyenne Cañon, to the south of Starsmore Discovery Center. The city has applied for a state grant of more than $99,000 for the project, which it plans to match with more than $66,000 in city funds.
Assuming the city gets the funding, Will says improvement plans include clearing out dead oak brush and many smaller spruce and fir trees. Currently, he says, the area is so crowded that it's "the perfect condition for a fire."