Local Family Maintains Forestland Over the Decades

In 1977, the family moved to the Front Range of Colorado, which allowed frequent weekend trips to the cabin.
In 1977, the family moved to the Front Range of Colorado, which allowed frequent weekend trips to the cabin.

One man’s dream of building a house in the forest was not realized. Instead a strong connection to the land was built as new generations of his family took on the responsibility of caring for the forest.

In December 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan, Henry “Hank” Mantz purchased forested land at the base of Mount Princeton. After the war ended, Mantz traveled back to Chaffee County to build a two-room cabin, which would serve as shelter while building a larger home. A year after finishing the cabin, he died with the home unbuilt. It would be 18 years before his daughter, Merle, returned again to the property.

In 1967, Merle, her husband Howard Smith and their two young sons, John and Paul, drove from Indiana to spend their two-week vacation on the property. The annual summer vacation thereafter became tied to the Colorado property. When the family arrived in 1974, mountain pine beetles were active in the area and their vacation was spent cutting beetle-infested pine trees. Paul recalled how he and his older brother participated as young boys in the work, cutting off branches after the trees were felled and stacking the branches into slash piles.

“It was a lot of work, but we worked together and at the end of the day there was a sense of accomplishment and pride. That experience has stuck with me,” he said. In 1977, the family moved to the Front Range of Colorado, which allowed frequent weekend trips to the cabin. The Smith family would continue to cut trees killed by mountain pine beetle into the early 1980s.

In 1995, the spruce budworm was taking its toll on the Douglas-fir trees at the property. Howard called the Salida office of the Colorado State Forest Service and a forester came out to look at the situation. Tree thinning was prescribed, to make the forest less hospitable to the defoliating insects. The CSFS forester also wrote a management plan to line out the steps Howard could take to continue to improve the health of the forest. During this same time frame, Howard came to rely on a nearby resident, Jeff McGinnis, to cut the trees marked for removal.

“Jeff has been a God-send, a way to market the wood,” Howard said. “I wish we could have gotten a logger that could have used the trees for lumber, but Jeff’s been a good friend and has taken the burden of cutting the trees. We have a special relationship. Jeff has kind of raised his kids up here.”

Howard says that if you own a piece of forestland in Colorado, you’re blessed. But with that ownership comes the responsibility to care for it. “The neighbors used to be mad about us cutting trees, but not anymore. The forest is healthy, green, and offers lots of ground cover. The money I spend to take care of the property is not thrown into the wind. I get benefits; benefits I get to pass on to the younger generations.”

Paul and Howard take a walk on the property.
Paul and Howard take a walk on the property.

“Taking care of the forest can feel like a challenge,” his son, Paul, says. “If you keep on top of it and keep doing a little along the way, you can stay on top of it. Otherwise, it can be overwhelming.”

The forester still visits the Smiths on their property to see how the forest is responding to their work, to answer questions and to provide input. Hundreds of unhealthy trees have been removed and Howard is very encouraged by all the young, healthy trees he readily sees that are a result of his efforts. He is nurturing the next generation of trees, as well as family.

Recently, sitting together with the family on the cabin porch, Howard told them he wants the property to remain a natural forest setting for current and future family members to find values and keep their feet on the ground. He says maybe at some point there will be a house on the property.

Paul wants himself and his own son to become more involved in caring for the property. “Dad’s been doing the bulk of the work for many years now, and it’s time for us to step in. I want to maintain the forest and preserve it. It’s like owning a slice of a time gone by.”

To Paul, the monetary value of the property is irrelevant. “It’s the one place that was and is constant in my life. It’s a constant for my kids, too. It’s my roots growing up, more home than any other place. There’s so much that’s cool about the property. I love teaching the kids about it.”

Facing Paul with a smile on his face, Howard interjected that what he’s heard Paul telling his kids is what he told Paul when he was young.

Merle — daughter, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother – added, “It is the heart of our family.” A family that takes caring for the forest, and for the family, seriously.