Animas Mountain revisited
by Will Sands
Animas Mountain is beginning to attract serious heat. A plan to mitigate wildfire hazard on the popular recreation area has drawn widespread opposition in recent weeks. Now the Bureau of Land Management is reopening discussion and offering new options. Nonetheless, members of the public remain concerned and are asking the agency to consider the real costs of logging Animas Mountain.
Following the catastrophic wildfire season of 2002 – which included Durango’s Missionary Ridge Fire – the Bush Administration created the National Fire Plan. Among the plan’s mandates was that the Forest Service and BLM thin trees in the Wildland Urban Interface, the edge of the forest in proximity to communities and homes.
In response to this mandate, San Juan Forest and Bureau of Land Management 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 a relatively new practice known as hydromowing, where a large spinning drum with carbide teeth eliminates small trees and brush. Hydromowing has been used extensive
ly in the Grandview Ridge, Hermosa Creek and Hidden Valley areas and drawn mixed public reactions.
Earlier this year, the BLM announced that Animas Mountain would be the next area to go beneath the hydromower blade. Animas Mountain is among Durango’s most popular recreation areas for hiking, biking and climbing. However, the resource, which is part city park and predominantly BLM land, 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.
“The need up there isn’t as substantial as some of the other areas we’ve treated,” explained Craig Goodell, assistant fire management officer for the Columbine Ranger District. “Right now, we’re not at the point where we need to do something today to prevent disaster. But now is a good time to get up there and prevent it from becoming a high priority.”
The BLM’s original plan entailed treating 800 acres of gambel oak, piñon, juniper and small diameter ponderosa pine with hydromowing. As originally proposed, the project would have required reconstruction of an old road to create access for forestry equipment. That old road is now a trail, making up approximately half of the greater Animas Mountain loop. Potential damage to the recreational and natural resource immediately incited strong public reactions.
“My primary concern was the erosion that would result from rebuilding the road,” commented Nancy Dzina, an adjacent homeowner. “From my understanding, the agency’s engineers even had serious reservations about reconstructing that road.”
Though the road construction topped the list, the agency received numerous comments advocating the more expensive hand-thinning and encouraging it to tread carefully on Animas Mountain.
“My question was ‘what is the true cost?’” said Mary Handrick, another nearby resident. “It goes beyond dollar figures. It’s a very valuable community asset. The issue should be more than just the bottom dollar.”
The BLM has heard the public concerns, according to Goodell, and is offering up three new options for thinning Animas Mountain. “We’ve definitely gotten more input on this project than most, and now we’re looking at some new options,” he said.
Hydromowing remains the first option, but the agency now believes it can go forward without any major road construction or associated erosion issues. “We think we can have a viable alternative using a tractor-based vehicle to provide the fuel,” Goodell said. “We would leave the road in a primitive state and only have to widen it in a few areas.”
Hand-thinning all 800 acres has also emerged as an option, though the agency argues that it is more than twice as expensive. The BLM has also forwarded a plan to hand-thin in the areas around the trails and hydromow the remainder. Conspicuously absent is an option to hand thin only in wildland-urban interface.
“It looks like hand-thinning is about 2½ times the cost of hydromowing the entire area,” Goodell said. “The buffer option is a lot more cost effective, would be more pleasing to the public and would maintain the aesthetic quality of the trail.”
While many appreciate the BLM’s willingness to be flexible, hydromowing continues to raise hackles. Katrina Blair, of Turtle Lake Refuge, referenced the recent Hidden Valley project as a strong argument against hydromowing Animas Mountain. Prior to last summer’s Hidden Valley work, Blair and Goodell toured the area just north of Animas Mountain, discussed impacts and struck up several agreements. Earlier this week, Blair revisited Hidden Valley and was greeted with disappointing news.
“In their final proposal, they said they would hand thin within 100 feet of the trails up there,” Blair said. “That definitely didn’t happen. In some spots they even hydromowed right over the top of the trail.”
Blair and Goodell also went and painstakingly flagged hundreds of trees that were deemed vital to forest health and should not to be thinned. “Many of them were cut down including gambel oak and serviceberry and chokecherry bushes, which are all edible and critical to the ecosystem,” she said. “The truth is that they’ve done more harm than good up there.”
With the Hidden Valley experience in mind, Blair discouraged the BLM from doing any hydromowing on Animas Mountain. “Some hand thinning around homes might be good and actually mitigate wildfire risk,” she said. “But to go into the heart of Animas Mountain and totally change the character of that place would be very damaging.”
Dzina echoed Blair’s concerns and urged the agency to seriously consider the hand-thinning option.
“The work that needs to be for fire abatement can be done by hand thinning,” she said. “The proposal even states that the majority of the forest is healthy. I personally think it’s more cost effective when you look at the bigger picture. The cost of the road, erosion control and damage to Animas Mountain would be much more expensive than treating by hand.”
The BLM hopes to wrap up planning and select an alternative sometime this summer. Whatever option is selected will be announced at that time with work beginning no sooner than Oct. 1. •