Jim Creek trailwork trudges forward following last year’s derecho

Members of the Open Lands, River and Trail advisory committee hike along Jim Creek Trail on Sept. 23. Following a prolonged wind event, roughly 1.5 miles of the trail was covered with piles of trees up to 20 feet tall. With funding from OLRT, the Headwaters Trails Alliance coordinated the tree removal and trail tread recovery in the area.
Amy Golden/Sky-Hi News

About a mile in, the landscape around the Jim Creek Trail transforms from a dense, aging forest into devastation.

Many trees that had been old but healthy are flattened. Splintered trunks stick up like menacing skewers, and enormous root systems have been torn from the ground.

As far as the eye can see, the toppled arbors reach nearly to the treeline with their trunks carving the path of the wind. At places, fallen timber completely hides the creek people can hear running alongside the trail.

Maire Sullivan, administrator with the Headwaters Trails Alliance, said she’s only been able to find one similar instance to what happened along the Continental Divide last year. A wind event near the Boundary Waters in the early ’80s caused a similar forest flattening.

“Outside of that, you’re talking about like volcanic blasts and stuff like that,” Sullivan said of the extent of devastation.

Known as a derecho, a rare wind event snapped trees from ridgeline to ridgeline about a year ago along Jim Creek and other drainages near the Continental Divide in Grand County.
Amy Golden/Sky-Hi News

Overnight from Sept. 7-8, 2020, Jim Creek and a few other drainages in Grand County experienced a derecho, or a sustained event resulting in straight-line wind damage. Derechos are incredibly rare, according to the National Weather Service, and even more rare west of the Great Plains, but Grand County had two last year.

The Opens Lands, River and Trail advisory committee went on to authorize two grants toward mitigating those wind events.

That money comes from a 0.3% sales tax Grand County voters passed in 2016. The advisory committee took a field trip Sept. 23 to the trail to see the work done using taxpayer money.

For scale, the section of flattened trees visible along Berthoud Pass near Robber’s Roost are about one-tenth the size of the damage along Jim Creek Trail. Headwaters Trails Alliance did recovery work on about 1.5 miles of the four-mile-long trail.

Sullivan said the trees across the trail stacked 15-20 feet high at times.

“It’s a pretty old growth forest through here, so there’s some substantial diameter to some of these trees that are down,” she said.

Members of the Open Lands, River and Trail advisory committee took a field trip Sept. 23 to see the extent of devastation from last year’s derecho on Jim Creek Trail along with Headwaters Trails Alliance’s recovery efforts using the taxpayer fund.
Amy Golden/Sky-Hi News

The advisory committee first approved a $26,500 emergency off-cycle grant to the Headwaters Trails Alliance. The group worked quickly to open up the impacted trails, including Jim Creek, using those funds, with sawyers cutting a minimum of 150 trees daily. An estimated 200,000 trees were mitigated from that effort.

This spring, the committee approved another $12,250 to Headwaters Trail Alliance for tread recovery at Jim Creek.

“I hiked this trail after they cleared it from the wind event,” said Anna Drexler-Dreis, administrator for the Open Lands, Rivers and Trails advisory committee. “It was definitely passable but (had) some route finding and (was) a little unsafe because of the massive devastation that happened to it.”

Sullivan added that in addition to 700 chainsaw-hours spent on Jim Creek Trail, which saw the worst of the derecho, it took another 400 hours swamping the debris to get the trail cleared. Treadwork this year included installing a culvert, a variety of trail armoring and trenching to redirect waters.

Along with removing the thousands of fallen trees on Jim Creek Trail, the Headwaters Trails Alliance spent the summer recovering the trail tread on the popular route.
Amy Golden/Sky-Hi News

With all the fallen trees that were uprooted, changing the pattern of the uphill route, many of the springs and side creeks found a new path down the main trail.

“Because the corridor was clear, it sort of chose the route of least resistance,” Sullivan said.

She added that there’s more treadwork to do on Jim Creek Trail after the damage ended up being more significant than expected. While everything is passable, it’s not as easy to navigate as she would like it to be with some persisting wet sections.

“I anticipate more will pop up next spring after another winter over,” Sullivan said of the muddy parts.

Headwaters Trails Alliance has also notified Colorado Parks and Wildlife about the impact that this wind event will likely have on migration corridors. The density of fallen trees means that no large wildlife will be able to migrate on the north-facing aspect of the area.

As the fallen trees dry out over the next few years, Sullivan said there’s also a big concern about fire potential.

She said her organization has reached out to the US Forest Service about how managing the excess fuels that have resulted from the derecho.

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