Fire damage to Rocky Mountain National Park’s trails could take years to recover
Green Mountain Trail lost most of its green in the East Troublesome Fire.
The Rocky Mountain National Park trail — which saw up to 10,000 visitors per month in the summer — is currently closed due to fire hazards. The burn scar and accompanying wind event left the once-dense lodgepole pine forest wrecked and ravaged.
“This is some of the hottest, most destroyed sections of trails we have here on the west side of the park,” said Doug Parker, trails program supervisor at Rocky, during a guided tour on Thursday. “It is a really good (representation) of the damage that we see throughout the backcountry.”
Green Mountain Trail is 1.8 of the 54 miles of trails that burned at Rocky Mountain National Park last summer. Of those burned, 33 miles are on the west side of the park. Rocky has a total of 350 miles of trail in the park system.
The forest that once framed the steep trail is now a scattered scar across the hillsides. According to Koren Nydick, Rocky Mountain National Park’s chief of resource stewardship, those dead trees are actually helping “keep the hillside on the hillside.”
Digging into the exposed dirt along the trail, Nydick demonstrated the variation in soil damage that occurred during the fast-moving fire leading to an increased flooding risk. Root structures remain in some areas along the trail but not others.
“Over here where you had a smoldering log, there’s not soil structure in here,” Nydick said. “There are little bits of roots, but they’re not really connected. They’re burned up.”
Nydick explained that the area is not as devastated as some watersheds in other fires because the flames didn’t take all the organic matter. That’s visible in the black charcoal that was left behind — if there was less organic matter, which makes it harder for plants to regrow, more white ash would be visible.
There are a couple hypotheses as to why the burn intensity wasn’t as severe.
“You’ve heard how the fire was a very fast moving fire in most areas — that means that there’s less time for it to really cook the soil in one spot,” Nydick said. “Also, the soils were very dry when it happened, so you didn’t have the steaming action that can happen where you’re actually cooking the soils from within … Also, as you know, snow fell on the fire. There was the cooling effect from the snow.”
Much of the soil is not going to be hydrophobic, or unable to absorb water. Even so, post-flooding events and debris movement are a worry along the trail.
Green Mountain’s watershed is small but steep. In a post fire assessment, a modeled storm could cause runoff that is 2,000% more than the pre-fire runoff for a similar storm.
The culvert at the bottom of the trail is high up on the park’s list of worries during rain, as it could blow out the road if blocked. Luckily, there are no structures near the bottom of the Green Mountain Trail that would be at elevated risk of flooding.
To get the trail up and running is another issue. It sits in between two steep hillsides, which means water flows continue to damage the already wrecked trail.
“If you hike further up the trail, you’re going to see a lot of old bridges that burned and you’re going to see a lot of nails, spikes sticking out of the ground, debris,” Parker said. “The trail has been cleared for the most part, but there’s still a lot of downed material up there. It’s really hazardous to hike in right now.”
The steep trail had been built using extensive infrastructure, including bridges and retainer bars. With most of that to be replaced, Parker and trails staff are considering whether rerouting the trail could improve its longevity and reduce its reliance on infrastructure.
“This is an area we’re really going to consider — can we make this a better trail for the next 10, 20, 30 years from now?” Parker said. “… What we can do now is take this opportunity to see if there’s a better alignment that doesn’t require as many bridges and infrastructure materials, so if the next fire or next flood comes through, then we have a trail that’s more resilient going forward.”
He added that there is no specific timeline to reopen Green Mountain Trail.
“It’s going to be closed for as long as it takes us to lay it out and rebuild it, so it could be years,” Parker said.
The creek that flows alongside Green Mountain Trail was babbling through the burn scar Thursday. In the flatter, riparian areas green plants have sprouted and a few mountain lupines have already bloomed among the ashes.
Nydick said that its possible that the lodgepole forest could come back, depending on if the seed bank survived the fire — something she thinks could still be viable. Rocky has no plans to remove the burned trees or reseed the wilderness areas, so how it recovers will be up to Mother Nature.
The forest that stood before the East Troublesome Fire was nearly 200 years old, so it’s uncertain whether Green Mountain Trail will ever look the same again.
“Under the conditions that this forest originally grew, the climate was different,” Nydick said. “Now the seedlings that are able to start coming up from seeds, they’re going to experience a different climate. It will depend, are we going to get another droughty summer? What’s going to happen in the next five, 10 years with climate change on top of natural variability?
“I think that’s going to affect how well the current vegetation does here — whether it’s able to come back as a lodgepole pine forest or if we’re having other species move in. To be honest, I can’t tell you that.”
Further research is necessary to understand the post-fire impacts, and a study is already underway at Rocky Mountain National Park. Nydick added that the mosaic of burned and unburned habitat, which increases the variety of ages and types of forest throughout Rocky, helps to support biodiversity.
Looking at the black hillside of fallen trees, Nydick said she mostly felt curious to see how the area will recover.
“I’m not feeling very sad because this is a lodgepole forest and this is what lodgepole forests do,” Nydick said. “They have stand-replacing fires. That’s been the natural fire regime in these forests for thousands of years.”
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