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By Lindsey Bright
There was hesitation in making the decision.
No one knew what the aesthetic outcome would be.
No one wanted to shut down one of the most popular campgrounds in Pagosa Country.
Williams Creek Campground had long been favored by campers, but what was the reason? Some people at the Pagosa Ranger District surmise that it must, surely, at least in part be due to the large amount shade provided by the trees in the dense forest. Perhaps, also, the campers flocked there due to the privacy that the heavily forested campground provides.
Paul Blackman, the Pagosa Ranger District recreation, trails, and wilderness supervisor, said the decision to close the campground and cut over 1,500 trees, the majority of which were Engelmann spruce, came down to safety of the camper, and something had to be done. Regardless of what the aesthetic outcome would be after the cutting, the danger of trees falling due to roots being rotted by Armillaria fungus was too great a risk.
So, the trees were marked, and now, after three weeks of work, stacks of trees are scattered throughout the campground waiting to be chipped or hauled off.
“I was worried that this would take a long time,” Blackman said. When he first knew the job had to be done, he thought it would take a minimum of two years. But that was before the Pagosa Area Biomass Long-term Stewardship contract.
The reason the work was accomplished so quickly is that it became the number-one priority of the Pagosa Area Biomass Long-term Stewardship Project undertaken by J.R. Ford and his company, Pagosa Land Co.
Now, slash piles, some 10 feet high, line the hilly campsite. Work to remove the slash piles began last week. Those trees with less than a 14-inch diameter, needles and branches still on and shaking, will be fed into the chipper. The rest will be hauled to Ford’s sawmill where the trees will be cut into retail timber.
Removing this many trees from Pagosa’s most beloved campground was not a decision taken lightly, but it needed to be done.
Blackman said that once the cutting began at Williams Creek, the Pagosa District was assured that the decision to cut so many trees was the right one. The slash piles of trees show the core of the Engelmann spruce. While some of the felled trees look healthy, the majority of the spruce show a dark brown core, a sign of heart rot.
“Some of these trees we weren’t sure we needed to cut. They didn’t show any signs of Armallaria, but when you look at the core, some of these trees were close to falling over,” Blackman said.
Many different species of fungi may be responsible for heart rot, but most common are Hericuim erinaceus, Pleurotus sapidus, Polyporus fissilis and Laetiporus sulphureus. The most dangerous part of these heart rots is how long they can work to destroy a tree without any outside sign of the tree being less than healthy. Sometimes, though, a conk will appear on the trunk, which will help identify the fungi present in the tree.
Blackman explained that trees at the Williams Creek Campground have been monitored and while, for the past 10 years, Armillaria has been the main concern, core samples have also been taken regularly from many of the trees. Yet, the core samples did not show heart rot. Most of the time, a core sample showed a healthy tree, and by all outward appearances, the tree was healthy.
“That the trees were unhealthy to this extent came as a shock,” Blackman said. “We had no way of knowing.” To take extensive core samples from all the Englemann spruce in the campground is not economically or time feasible.
Along with the heart rot found in the trees, there was also evidence of spruce beetle infestation.
Blackman said the reason for this high amount of illness in the trees is due to the high density of trees. The trees could not get enough water and nutrition, thus become weakened and highly susceptible to various diseases and insect attacks.
Though the shade of the campground was thought to be much loved, even with 1,500 plus trees gone, the campground still maintains its beauty. Areas of former forest density are now open and park like spaces. Campgrounds that were nestled into the trees, still have trees but now also have lovely views of the mountains as well as easier access to the stream.
“The campground has maintained its aesthetic appeal,” Blackman said.
Some sites were transformed to water front sites. Blackman also said that after this thinning, a surge of aspen growth will be expected in the campground, adding to the aesthetics of the campground as well as providing future shade.
The stumps that have been left, however, Blackman said, in such abundance will be sanded down. A few stumps at a campsite is fine, said Blackman, and may add to the quality of the campsite. An overabundance, though, such as over 10 stumps in a site, needs to be mitigated through sanding.
Some portions of the campground will be open for next summer, however, others will remain closed to test the wind firmness of the remaining stands of trees.
“The remaining trees are very exposed to wind,” Blackman said, especially those in the northern loop of the campground where the most extensive cutting was completed. Blackman said they will have to wait and see how the trees hold up through the next windy season, which will most likely be the spring of 2013.