Wildlands Restoration Volunteers make efforts to heal High Park

“I got to see the Poudre River flowing black,” said John Giordanengo, the Wildlands Restoration Volunteers (WLRV) regional director for northern Colorado. “It was a catalyst to getting the organization involved in restoration and being part of the solution.”

The WLRV and organizations such as the US Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service have been working on recovery of the natural areas affected by the High Park fire since the fire burned during June of last year.

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Restoration efforts by the WLRV include spreading native grass seeds, mulching, installing straw wattles and felling trees in order to decrease erosion and hazard. The majority of these strategies have been implemented on private land above important roads and infrastructures.

“As organizations like [WLRV] revegetate those areas and control erosion and so forth, it’s going to protect water supplies that are used down here in urban areas,” said Frederick Smith, department head of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship at CSU.

At the core of restoration lies the issue of water quality.

“The restoration efforts that they’re doing protects the water supply for Fort Collins,” Smith said. “We had significant issues with it when the ash and the debris from the fire washed into the Poudre.”

There are two sites that divert a handsome amount of drinking water downstream for businesses and residents. These sites have experienced heavy clogging this year after the fire due to ash, sediment and tree limbs, according to Giordanengo.

Now, much of the ash has been washed through the system, but sediment is still an issue. More volunteers are needed to overcome the lack of scale that has resulted in not being able to treat enough of the land soon enough, according to Giordanengo.

“It’s a great opportunity for residents of Larimer County to get involved in protecting those areas that directly impact their drinking water,” Giordanengo said.

Water quality is not the only concern of the WLRV. Recreation, access to roads and the rafting industry were all affected by the fire, too.

Giordanengo saw the destruction of the High Park fire before any recovery was realized.

“The ground is charred black, and, when you come walking out of it, you’re full of ash. Your nose, your ears, your pants, your shoes,” Giordanengo said. “The trees are burnt matchsticks, and there is no vegetation left on the ground.”

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Natural recovery and the restoration done by volunteers showed itself in some areas in just a month after the fire was spent. With about half of the 87,000 affected acres dubbed as moderately to severely burned, many areas are still charred black.

“We’ve seen some benefits, and we’ve seen a lot of natural recovery,” said Deborah Entwistle, hydrologist for Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests.  “It’s helping.”

Within two or three years the area should be very green and trees will start to come back, according to Smith.

“What’s going to happen is there is going to be this mosaic of vegetation that develops which is, for a lot of reasons, better than a monoculture of vegetation,” Smith said.

“We’re going to have some big green meadow areas in ten years and not as many trees, and that’s alright because, historically, that is what this area looked like,” Giordanengo said.

Runoff and erosion will continue to be problems in the years leading up to these full meadows, according to Giordanengo.

Smith, with his scientific expertise in forest management and fire ecology, estimates the affected areas to return to the way they were before the fire in 100 years considering that is how long the natural areas had been untouched by flames before the High Park fire.

While natural recovery will occur, restoration is meant to speed up this process. With about 5,000 heavily-charred acres of the original 10,000 still left to be treated, Giordanengo and the WLRV are in constant need of more volunteers. After a hard day’s work, volunteers of age are given free beer donated by Odell Brewery.

“Delete any hesitation and come on out, you will not regret it,” Giordanengo said.

Collegian Reporter Laren Cyphers can be reached at news@collegian.com