August 26, 2013 Updated: August 26, 2013 at 4:33 pm
Colorado Springs resident Dave Stoller stood over a freshly cut tree stump in the park behind his neighborhood and could feel his heart beating faster.
"Look what they have done here," he said, his voice shaking. "It's heartbreaking."
Stoller walks the trails in the Union Meadows open space with his dog Waya nearly every day. Last week there were 10 to 15 percent fewer trees in Union Meadows than just two weeks ago and he was angry.
Union Meadows open space is one of about a dozen areas in town where city-hired crews are removing trees as part of the city's forest management program.
"We are scared to death they are just going to level it," he said of the 31 acres of city-owned forested open space that runs along Union Boulevard between Austin Bluffs Parkway and North Academy Boulevard.
Stoller and other nearby residents are trying to stop thework.
"There is no need to cut any of these trees," Stoller said.
Across the city, crews are cutting down invasive trees such as the Siberian elm that choke the life out of other trees, plants and grasses. They are removing dead and dying trees that would be easy kindle for a fire. And they are cutting away the smaller, less healthy trees to breathe new life into the taller, stronger pines, said Dennis Will, city forester.
Other areas where crews are removing trees this month and in September include Winfield Scott Park, Cresta open space, Austin Bluffs open space, Sinton Pond open space, Broadmoor Valley Park and Bear Creek Canon Park.
"We are using the best science we have," Will said. "We are trying to do it in a thoughtful and meticulous way, to be good stewards of resources and good neighbors."
But some residents aren't buying the science and say cutting down trees is a brutal scene to witness. The Union Meadows forest feels naked and their sanctuary invaded, said resident John Linder. He saw a stack of trees, some six-inches in diameter, on the side of the Union Meadows trail this week and questioned the city's rationale.
"I can understand fire mitigation," he said. "But they would have to cut down the whole forest on the side hill if they are concerned about fire. Why cut one tree and not another?"
Earlier this year, the Colorado Springs City Council approved $1 million from its reserve funds for fuel reduction and forest restoration. The Waldo Canyon fire played a part in the emergency funding request - fire fear was on the city staffer's minds, Will said.
But the truth is, the city's budget has not had much money for forest management and the urban forested areas have gotten out of control, Will said. The $1 million will allow thinning on 600 acres of the city's 15,000 acres of parks and open space areas. He wants the city to find more money for ongoing forest maintenance.
The parks and open space areas that took priority this summer were forest areas that interface with the urban area, such as Bear Creek Ca?n Park and North Cheyenne Ca?n Park, Will said. Union Meadows also is open space that backs up to residential neighborhoods.
Cutting down trees is based on an historical range of variation, meaning managers want the forest to emulate what nature would have put there before settlement, Will said. It's a science that says trees and plants specifically evolve to a site. They grow a certain way and withstand insects and disease and they even are less susceptible to fire, Will said.
The ponderosa pine, for example, has a thick bark that protects from surface fires. The crown is high and it naturally prunes itself. But when smaller trees, such as oak brush, Douglas fir and Rocky Mountain junipers, crowd under the ponderosa, the giant pine is less healthy, Will said.
Those smaller trees, six inches in diameter or less, are the ones being cut in Union Meadows. Smaller trees are suppressed under the larger trees and never will grow to the healthy state that allows them to fight insects and disease, Will said.
"Those guys think about and talk about every tree before they cut it," Will said. "We ask ourselves are we doing more good than harm."
Will believes the ponderosas, which are growing about a quarter inch a year, will grow one to one and half inches per year now that they are not as crowded. He also believes they will become more resistant to insects and disease.
Resident Mike Proctor said the city rushed into its tree-cutting program and worries that taking out the smaller trees creates an opportunity for stormwater to rush down the hill onto Union Boulevard.
"If you denude a landscape of vegetation, you increase the chance of flooding and mud slides," Proctor said. "I would rather see us mitigate around our homes before we start chopping the forest down."
Proctor wants a temporary hold on tree removal until the residents can talk about their concerns with city foresters.
"I hope we are getting the correct and accurate information," he said. "I have to be assured what I'm told is accurate and I don't have a warm fuzzy feeling right now."
Stoller said he worries about the effect of thinning the forest on the animals, including mountain lions and deer, which live in Union Meadows. He would like to see an environmental impact study on areas under consideration for tree removal, he said.
"Here we have this beautiful forest along Union Boulevard," he said. "This place is a paradise."
Residents who live near Winfield Scott Park, off Old Broadmoor Road, got a temporary stop last week on tree removal in their neighborhood. They will meet at 5:30 p.m. Monday at the park with city foresters in search of a compromise.
Will, a forester for 30 years, had not anticipated the anger the program would cause, he said. An angry woman stopped his truck Friday near the Union Meadows open space as crews worked in the background and yelled that she was not happy.
"I love trees," Will said. "Of course I care. I've devoted my career to forest management - I believe in the science of it."
AREAS OF TREE REMOVAL
• Winfield Scott Park, 2506 Sycamore St. Removal of Siberian elms. Work on 3.6 acres temporarily on hold while residents meet with city foresters.
• Union Meadows open space, North Union Boulevard at Austin Bluffs Parkway. Removal of oak brush and small trees. Work on 17 of the 31 acres underway.
• Cresta open space, east of Cresta Road. Removal of oak brush, dead trees and Siberian elms. Work on 11 of the 29 acres underway.
• Austin Bluffs open space, 1910 Rimwood Dr. Tree removal. Work on 25 acres of the 585 acres is complete. Plans for 45 acres underway.
• Sinton Pond open space, Sinton Road. Removal of Siberian elms. Work on 11 acres of the 13 acres to begin in mid-September.
• Broadmoor Valley Park, 3750 Broadmoor Valley Road. Removal of Siberian elms. Work on six of 11 acres to begin first week in September.
OTHER HIGH PRIORITY AREAS
Bear Creek Cañon Park, 501 Bear Creek Road.
North Cheyenne Cañon Park, 2110 N. Cheyenne Canon Road.
Blodgett Peak open space, 3898 W. Woodman Road.
Red Rock Canyon, 3615 W. High St.
Rockrimmon open space, Tamarron Drive and Saddle Mountain Road.
Mountain Shadows open space, 2440 Brogans Bluff Drive.
Mountain Shadows Park, 5151 Flying W Ranch Road.
Oak Meadow Park, 4960 Farthing Dr.
Quail Lake Park, 915 E. Cheyenne Mountain Blvd.
Glen Oaks Park, 5445 Broadmoor Bluffs Drive.
Woodstone Park, 1315 Carlson Drive.
Broadmoor Bluffs Park, 5315 Farthing Drive.