Dennis Will is used to the quizzical looks by now.
“I meet people all the time who go, ‘You work for who?’” he says. “’I didn’t know we have city forestry.’”
Yes, like many local governments, Colorado Springs has a forestry unit.
Will’s title is city forester, the chief in command of a small team of tree guardians. The full-time staff, including him, is 13 — responsible for an estimated 250,000 trees standing by city streets and another 20,000 believed to occupy nearly 10,000 acres of parks.
Their base, a workshop near the larger parks and recreation department they fall under, prominently displays the Springs’ distinction as a Tree City USA, placing it on a roster of more than 3,400 tree-proud cities across the nation. It is a distinction that would almost certainly make proud the Springs’ founder, Gen. William Jackson Palmer, whose orders for roads included orders for trees.
But it can be easy for Will and his fellow arborists to feel less than appreciated.
While some are entirely unaware of Will’s occupation, others consider themselves all too familiar. He is a villain in the eyes of those who deem beloved nature wrecked by forestry’s mitigation projects. Woods are thinned, fuels diminished, “so you don’t have a giant fire,” Will constantly explains.
It’s an increasingly important task in a place like the Springs with an ever-expanding wildland-urban interface and that, like the rest of the West, finds itself increasingly susceptible to the effects of climate change.
Other units of the parks department chip in, as does the Fire Department. But it’s increasingly difficult to tend to fire mitigation, Will admits.
“That’s the nature of the beast when you’re understaffed,” he says. “So almost everything we do is reactionary.”
They are called upon to remove tree limbs threatening power lines, roofs, cars or passersby on sidewalks. When regularly scheduled pruning isn’t possible — hasn’t been since the recession, Will says, when forestry was slashed like most city offices — the calls become more frequent. They’re either emergencies to respond to right away or, more commonly, they’re added to the growing wait list.
“We’re talking months of (wait) time,” Will says.
If it sounds like he’s lobbying for more government funding to hire more staff and/or pay more contracted jobs, it’s because he is. His case is that trees are the city’s green infrastructure, and like roads and water treatment facilities, they deserve maintenance. Healthy trees, Will says, equal healthy, happy people.
The work that needs to be done from his perspective? “It doesn’t get done,” he says. “The problem for us is there has always been more to do than we can do. So the difficulty is prioritizing priorities.”
If he were to make priorities, these would be some:
Will counts 260 miles of drainages in the city.
“I’m beginning to feel discomfort with the level of invasive species not only in our open spaces, but in our riparian areas,” he says.
That’s why he “put his foot down,” he says, and pulled staff from other work this summer to focus on cutting locust and Russian olive trees and other invaders at Monument Valley Park. The ongoing work aims to restore the habitat to natives such as cottonwoods and willows.
Invasive species can outcompete native flora, and “that jacks with the ecosystem,” Will says — threatening to push out resident birds and critters. “That’s to our detriment.”
North Cheyenne Cañon
The park has been the center of tree felling in recent years, including this summer. A four-day project in May was meant to remove between 30 and 40 “dead and hazardous trees,” city officials said in a news release.
Will says another 100 acres are still in need of treatment. Douglas fir and pine trees stand gray and naked due to beetle infestation. “Insect activity goes hand in hand with over stocking,” Will says.
“Over stocked” could describe many local parks, he says. But tree removal takes on elevated importance at North Cheyenne Cañon because of the steepness. “The steeper the slope, the greater the magnitude and range of a fire,” Will says.
In the early 2000s, forestry removed dead and dying oak brush along roadways leading into this signature, rugged preserve near the heart of the city.
“Thinking that if we could get a handle on that, somebody driving by with a cigarette wouldn’t start a fire at least from the road,” Will says. “But we need to continue that work into the interior of the park.”
Oak has the lofty reputation of a “pioneer species,” he says — a fast grower that, along with aspen, populate burned areas early and help rehabilitate landscapes.
“But too much of it can be bad,” Will says. “Especially in the fall, those leaves dry up ... a lot of time, that dry oak brush is extremely flammable.”