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Colorado Springs foresters striving for balance with Stratton Open Space work

September 6, 2017 Updated: September 7, 2017 at 6:20 am
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Scott Komatz of Seed Masters works Wednesday, March 22, 2017, to clear thick oak brush in Stratton Open Space. (Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette)

Colorado Springs foresters are struggling to find a balance between keeping the city's open spaces healthy, mitigating wildfire danger and pleasing outdoor enthusiasts who say the work is too destructive.

The best approach likely boosts public outreach, said City Forester Dennis Will. And while many lament crews using masticators to clear land in the Stratton Open Space, the treaded machines are here to stay.

Will told the Trails, Open Spaces and Parks Working Committee about work in the Stratton Open Space Wednesday morning and acknowledged that some are displeased with the area's new look. Many have complained that crews diminished the land's appearance and biodiversity by tearing out too much of the plant life.

About a dozen people unhappy with the work attended Wednesday's meeting and asked Will to ease up on the land. Crews armed with chainsaws use more discretion than a masticator, they said.

"This mass destruction just tugs at your heartstrings," said Ann Young. "The feeling is totally different. It has been ruined in a lot of people's opinions."

Young, a former volunteer for the state's Trust for Public Land, asked Will to leave 8 acres along the Stratton Springs Path untouched.

Will said work in the Stratton Open Space in wouthwest Colorado Springs at the foot of Cheyenne Canyon used a mixture of ground crews and masticators to keep costs low. No more work is scheduled this year because there's no money left.

Kent Obee, former chair of the city's Parks Advisory Board, walked the Stratton Open Space last week, mourning the lost mountain mahogany and Gambel oak. He pointed out blue marks meaning a tree is safe and red marks indicating imminent removal.

"You won't see many blue dots," Obee said.

What's left behind is a monoculture of thinly-spread ponderosa pines, he said.

Will argued that he left behind more than just ponderosa pine, though the diversity might not be as apparent at eye level as it might be from above.

Foliage on the land is thinner, but many hikers and mountain bikers enjoy an increased field of view, Will said.

Finding a balance between the work and preserving the land's aesthetic value is important, said Lee Milner, a member of the Working Committee.

In some places more foliage was cleared than was necessary, Will and Kurt Schroeder, park operations and development manager acknowledged, but in most places the clearing was needed.

"The forest the way it was before we went in there was not a healthy forest," Schroeder said. "In some people's eyes it may have been a really appealing look," but the ecosystem was crowded.

Removing those plants may yield unintended consequences, warned Donna Strum, who said she lives in the area. Similar mitigation in the mid-1990s took out so much undergrowth that the land couldn't' contain heavy rain.

"In '97 it rained very hard and I was up to my waist in flood waters inside my home," Strum said. "I'm simply saying when you clear out that understory, you're giving water leave to rush out and there are homes all the way around."

That heavy plant life can also fuel wildfires, Schroeder said. He recalled the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, the lives lost and the homes destroyed. He considered the consequences of a similar fire sparking in an open space.

"I shudder to think," he said.

Will said he plans to give the public more information regarding future plans, though some will still disapprove.

"We're public servants for 400,000 people. That's 400,000 people with different opinions on how the city should be managing its resources," he said. "We do the best we can with the science we have and the funding we have."

In addition Schroeder said he'll direct forestry staff to try and find a middle ground preserving more of the open spaces while still allowing for wildfire mitigation and forest restoration.

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