A U.S. Forest Service trail crew cleared scores of burned tree trunks off two popular trails on Basalt Mountain earlier this month — opening areas in the heart of the Lake Christine Fire last summer.
The Mill Creek and Ditch trails are open to hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. The entire 1.6-mile Mill Creek Trail was within the fire perimeter, said Katy Nelson, wilderness and trails program manager for the Aspen-Snowmass Ranger District.
The five-person trail crew was able to use chainsaws on the downed timber because Basalt Mountain isn’t in designated wilderness, where mechanized uses aren’t allowed. Nevertheless, it was tough work because of the high concentration of deadfall and the risk of standing, dead trees falling. The fire hollowed out numerous trees and left the shells standing. They can be precarious in the wind.
The small crew is facing a mammoth challenge this spring and summer — clearing downed timber in the burn scar and from numerous avalanche chutes that ran last winter throughout the district. Some of the most popular trails in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness are blocked by trees knocked down by the slides and stacked like matchsticks.
“They have an incredibly tough job,” Nelson said. The crew devoted time to the Basalt Mountain trails when they could this spring, balancing needs with other high-priority areas.
“They came back and were so excited to get Mill Creek and the Ditch Trail open,” Nelson said.
Traveling along the paths provides a front-row seat in fire ecology. A burn severity map prepared by a Forest Service team in August shows the southern half of the Mill Creek Trail was in the highest classification of severity. It’s a largely apocalyptic landscape. The trail is powdery ash in places but the trail tread is already compacting even with limited use. Burnt tree trunks stripped of limbs stand alongside the trail like ghostly sentinels. Their charred bark is peeling off to expose white wood. The ground is littered with burned trees that were already downed when the fire swept through or trunks that collapsed in the fire.
On the second half of the trail, where the fire didn’t burn so hot, numerous conifer trees were severely singed. The pines needles are rust-colored and the trunks are scorched but the dead trees will probably stand for years as testament to the fire.
Nelson said clearing the deadfall in the areas where the burn severity was lower can be tougher because they often have all their limbs.
A handful of meadows sprinkled between scorched patches of forest survived unscathed. The grass and leaves on the brush looks particularly lush and neon green after a wet winter. One recent dry evening, the streams were running clear despite the soot and ash piled on either side.
The Ditch Trail is more of a mosaic where some areas alongside the path are scorched earth but more sections are lush with vegetation. Wildfires are close to exploding.
“It’s just a cool window into fire ecology,” Nelson said.
The trail crew hasn’t yet been able to clear the Cattle Creek Trail higher up in elevation on the mountain. Nelson said about 2 miles of that trail was in the fire perimeter and much of it in high-burn severity.
When Nelson walked the trail, she counted between 175 and 200 downed trees in the 2-mile stretch.
“That was last fall before we had wind and rain and snow,” she said. The amount of work has undoubtedly increased since then. It is uncertain when the crew will get to the Cattle Creek Trail, she said. A higher priority will be to return to Mill Creek and put in erosion control features on the trail. The soils in high burn severity areas don’t absorb moisture, so there is a danger of the trails getting washed out by summer downpours, Nelson said.
Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association will provide labor for coordinated work on the trail, she said.
Signs posted at both ends of the Ditch and Mill Creek trails as well as along Basalt Mountain Road warn users of dangers ranging from flash flooding to falling trees.
Nelson said her prior work in burn areas showed that falling snags are a constant danger.
“It’s not uncommon that as soon as you clear it, there’s already a tree down somewhere on the trail,” she said.
The trail clearing work won’t be a “one-and-done” task, Nelson said. Instead it will be ongoing.
Mountain bikers would be well advised to be alert for down timber even if the trail was clear a day or so before. Speed checks are a must.
Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Karen Schroyer praised the work of the trail crew and asked for the public’s patience while the agency completes more work on Basalt Mountain.
Forest Road 524, up Basalt Mountain, and 509, paralleling Cattle Creek, will be closed for most of July to allow crews to complete work on the roads and clearing dead trees that poses a threat next to them.
The road will be closed to vehicles, bicycles and hikers from the main parking area on Basalt Mountain.
“The road crew plans on taking three to four weeks to accomplish the work,” Schroyer said.
In addition, the Aspen-Sopris District is working on a salvage sale of timber. The agency has to go through about 90 days of the National Environmental Policy Act process, which is typical for harvesting timber. There are no special or expedited rules for a sale in a burn area, Schroyer said. The earliest that a company could harvest any timber is fall, she said.