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Monarch Pass could serve as a new model for wildfire mitigation in treacherous areas

About 90% of the tall spruce on Monarch Pass have been killed by beetles. If a fire were to spark there, the repercussions would be devastating.

Jason Blevins
The Colorado Sun
A Ponsse Bear 8-wheeler cut-to-length machine lifts a beetle-kill tree in the forest harvesting process on Sept. 24, 2021, at Monarch Pass near Poncha Springs. In effort to reduce wildfire fuels, the Arkansas River Watershed Collaborative worked with Miller Timber Services to remove the dead trees using the CTL logging equipment. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

MONARCH PASS — Sergio Bernal casually flicks his wrist and the towering spruce falls. The Oregon forester presses a button and buzzing saws de-limb the beetle-killed tree and slice it into 33-foot logs. A giant claw swings the tree to the side and the slash falls to the forest floor. The eight-wheeled Finnish machine — called a harvester — captained by Bernal crawls down the leafy slope and grabs another tree.

In a matter of minutes, Bernal has stacked hundreds of dead spruce trees on the steep slope. Behind him, another forester in yet another massive machine called a forwarder gathers the freshly felled trees for transport to nearby lumber mills or local firewood sellers.

“These machines, this approach, opens up a lot of opportunity for us to get into areas where we haven’t been able to get in and treat before,” says Andy Lerch, shouting above the growling diesel engine and churning saw.



Lerch is the lead forester for the Arkansas River Watershed Collaborative, a unique coalition of communities, water managers and agencies stretching from Leadville to Kansas that has partnered with the Forest Service in a first-of-its-kind project on the steep slopes flanking Monarch Pass.

About 90% of the tall spruce on Monarch Pass have been killed by beetles. If a fire were to spark there, the repercussions would be devastating. Power lines would fall. The Monarch ski area would be threatened. U.S. 50 would close. Recreation would slow and downstream economies would falter. And, perhaps most importantly, thousands of residents in the 23,000-square-mile Arkansas River Basin would for years see their watershed churning with sediment flowing from the burn scar.



To continue reading, go to ColoradoSun.com.


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