HTA clears hundreds of downed trees on High Lonesome Trail by hand
The Headwaters Trails Alliance has successfully cut down 775 trees scattered over a 1.2 mile stretch of the High Lonesome Trail to Devil’s Thumb — all without using a chainsaw.
The enormous effort was the last piece of major work organized by the Headwaters Trails Alliance to clear the tens of thousands of trees that fell onto three popular Grand County tails last September.
Executive Director Meara McQuain explained that HTA’s hazard tree mitigation work typically focuses on spot situations, where a handful of trees might block a trail. Monarch Lake, Jim Creek and High Lonesome trails weathered a derecho, or long-lived windstorm, that left them nearly impassable.
“They are caused by wind speeds over 100 mph,” McQuain said. “This particular one that happened in September, the wind came in and basically bounced off the (Continental) Divide. It was coming at these trees in an easterly direction. We’ve come to learn this was so significant because the trees are not used to that. They’re used to a southwesterly or northwesterly wind.”
Because of this, the trees that fell weren’t beetle kill as one might expect. Instead, it was mature but healthy spruce and fir forests.
“So that was a real loss to have those more mature forests, especially more diverse forests, to be lost in those events,” McQuain said.
September was the season’s second derecho event. With the help of an emergency grant from the Open Lands, Rivers and Trails Fund, the HTA was able to fund and organize efforts to remove many of those trees by chainsaw before winter.
The last 1.2 miles of High Lonesome, however, presented a unique challenge. That segment of the trail before treeline sits in a Wilderness Area, so motorized equipment including chainsaws is not permitted.
HTA staff had to obtain the proper certification to use crosscut saws before the process could begin.
“You move a lot slower with a crosscut saw and you typically have a partner,” McQuain said. “You have to be very strategic about being able to read the physics of these trees, especially because they were jackstrawed so densely. You really had to be able to listen to what was happening during the cut to ensure (safety).”
The extent of damage was so severe that crews couldn’t even tell where the trail was, according to HTA Field Projects Manager Sean Burke. To start, crews first had to climb over the debris — which could be as high as 15-20 feet in some areas — and flag any identifiable parts of the trails.
Once the flagging was done, crews were able to “connect the dots” and identify the trail. Then, they just had to cut it out using human power alone.
The project took 14 workdays spread out over a month and wasn’t like anything Burke had done before.
“We’ve done a lot of projects inside a Wilderness Area, but we’ve never cut through an entire forest of downed trees,” Burke said. “I would also say I’ve never spent this much time on a particular project.”
On top of hand cutting these hundreds of trees, crews had to make their way up there. Round trip, the hike to the site was seven miles over a high difficulty trail while carrying all this equipment.
“We were doing what we felt like was a lot of work for the general public to be able to access one of the most popular trails again and also these thru-hikers on the Continental Divide Trail,” Burke said.
He described the feeling of the crews finally breaking through tree line on Wednesday as “amazing.”
While that segment of High Lonesome was the last bit of major trailwork to be completed related to the September derecho, McQuain said more work will be needed for fuel reduction and public safety beyond the trails. What that will look like will be up to the US Forest Service.
“All we’ve been able to achieve at this point is to allow for passage through,” McQuain said.
Tree removal has grown to be a huge part of the nonprofit’s budget. HTA typically removes 2,000 to 10,000 trees annually in Grand County, costing $50,000 a year. Last year, HTA spent $130,000 on saw work alone.
In addition to the HTA crews and volunteers, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, Wildland Restoration Volunteers and Timberline Lodge helped to get the trail clear and open. The project took 800 people hours in total.
With two fires on US Forest Service land in Grand County, the federal land manager has focused on recovery and reopening those burn scars to public use. Without HTA, it’s possible that visitors and locals would still be unable to access three of the county’s favorite trails.
“So if we weren’t able to get the funding or have the staff training, I think these areas would likely still be closed,” McQuain said. “… We really wanted to ensure that our residents and visitors could enjoy these beautiful areas that we have.”
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