LA VETA, Colo. – Nestled in the mountains 35 miles west of Trinidad, North Lake State Wildlife Area is perhaps best known to the public for its recreation opportunities, which include fishing, hunting, boating and camping. But the forested hillsides here, leased by Colorado Parks and Wildlife from the City of Trinidad, also serve another less-obvious purpose: they are part of a larger watershed that delivers Trinidad fresh water for municipal, industrial, agricultural and other uses.

“A catastrophic wildfire within this watershed would in all likelihood negatively impact water quality and delivery infrastructure, affecting thousands of people within Las Animas County,” said Mark Loveall, assistant district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) La Veta District.

Throughout 2016 and continuing through this winter, firefighters from the Stonewall Fire Protection District have been hand-thinning the forest at North Lake SWA by felling and removing unhealthy, suppressed and dying trees, as well as trees in overly dense stands, through CSFS guidance.

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Firefighters from the Stonewall Fire Protection District help thin the forest at North Lake State Wildlife Area.

The main goal of the project is to protect the water quality of the North Fork of the Purgatoire River watershed, which supplies water to Trinidad and almost 85 percent of Las Animas County residents. Initial efforts are focused on treating 45 acres adjacent to a water delivery ditch that feeds into nearby North and Monument lakes – which represent the primary water storage for the watershed – by thinning trees to create a shaded fuelbreak.

“When there is a wildfire, we know there is a fuelbreak there now that will help us fight the fire,” said Loyd Holliman, chief of the Stonewall Fire Protection District.

Forests that have become unhealthy and overly dense can set the stage for exceptionally intense, devastating wildfires that directly impact water supplies by introducing ash, soot and other contaminants into waterways, and increasing erosion and resulting sedimentation downstream. But active forest management, including forest thinning to reduce fuels and create fuelbreaks, can mitigate wildfire concerns and resulting watershed impacts.

Project funding came from the CSFS, Stonewall FPD, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources’ Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant Program, City of Trinidad, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Spanish Peaks/Purgatoire River Conservation District and the Bar NI Community Service Fund.

Trees removed to create the fuelbreak are predominately Gambel oak and white fir, the latter which Loveall says have been chronically affected by western spruce budworm in this area. Fire-adapted species such as aspen, ponderosa pine and larger Douglas-fir trees have been retained, as well as some large snags to benefit wildlife.

The project stems from an action list identified within the Stonewall FPD Community Wildfire Protection Plan, completed through its efforts with the CSFS and local community in November 2014.

Expanding this project to address additional acres farther up-canyon, through additional funding, may be possible in the near future due to early successes, based on Holliman’s assessment.

As he says, “We’re getting lots of positive feedback already.”