Department of Environmental Quality fuels crews restoring forests in Colorado

September 7, 2018


Christopher Lomahquahu

Gila River Indian News


The Department of Environmental Quality Fuels Crews work to restore forest in the high country among ponderosa pine, spruce and oak. 


Since August, two DEQ Fuels & Restoration Crews have been in Southern Colorado removing oak and pine for forest restoration. 


In the San Juan National Forest, gambel oak and ponderosa pine grow together. But the dense oak thickets have become a fire hazard, and it is necessary to remove small-diameter trees.


A six-person Fuels & Restoration Crew working in the San Juan NF is led by Habitat Restoration Crew Leader Steven Poolheco. Poolheco and his team are helping the US Forest Service mitigate the removal of oak and hazardous ponderosas.


When a fire erupts in a forest with an abundance of oak, such as the San Juan NF, the understory of oak can carry the fire from the ground and up other trees, which is referred to as “ladder fuel.”


“Oak always has been left to grow, but in this forest, its grown so thick that it now it’s a fire hazard,”  said DEQ Senior Wildlife Biologist Russell Benford. “Our crew is up there essentially cleaning out this oak understory…oak, because it is a hard work, it burns and burns, so the fire stays on the ground for a real long time.” 


About 148 miles to the east, another DEQ Fuels Crew is located in the Rio Grande National Forest in South central Colorado marking dead spruce trees that will be harvested by a third-party contractor. 


This four-person team is led by Habitat Specialist Ashton Lynch, who is working in her element. This, Benford added, is attributed to her passion for environmental work and her university degree in Forestry. 


“In the Rio Grande National Forest, the second crew is working in spruce, so they’re at a higher elevation,” said Benford, “That forest is infested by what is called the spruce bud worm, it’s another herbivore that can cause as much or even more damage than the bark beetles seen in ponderosa pine.” 


The U.S. Forest Service approached DEQ and expressed an interest in hiring them to work in the two national forests in Colorado, based on their reputation for effectively removing hazardous fuels that contribute to forest fires. 


Benford said the project represents the culmination of two years of effort to reduce risk and improve forest health by clearing areas prone to fire. “It’s a great partnership with the Forest Service, and we’re grateful to have it. Many people in their shop and ours helped make this happen. I really have to tip my hat to GRIC’s Office of General Council; Thomas Murphy, Naomi Bebo and Isaac Navajo developed the contracts and agreements with the Forest Service.”


He said the crew in the San Juan NF is clearing 50 acres in steep terrain, where they will continue to clear oak and pine. Some of the pine will be used as lumber or firewood.


“There’s so much forest that needs this kind of maintenance, we’re just taking a little bit out of a huge area…we hope to continue working in that area for the foreseeable future, it’s a great opportunity for our crew to contribute to healing the land,” said Benford. 


In the Rio Grande NF, the objective is to mark boundaries around dead spruce trees to create sections that a third-party contractor will harvest. Approximately 80% of these trees are dead and need to be removed. The crew is also marking wildlife habitat and other ecological assets. 


Benford said the combination of drought conditions and the spruce bud worm have contributed to the spruce trees’ demise, causing them to die in large numbers. He said, although insect pests such as spruce bud worms occur naturally, compromised trees are susceptible to a myriad of dangers to their health. 


“We're out there really trying to prevent fires from starting in the first place and trying to get the land in a condition that is healthy and productive again, instead of being sick,” said Benford. 


The return for the crews’ hard work is not only good pay, but also reinvestment that goes back to their program to support projects at home. This shows how valuable an asset the crews can be to the Community, the Forest Service and the people and wildlife that benefit from and appreciate healthier forests.