by Marissa Lorenz
The Grand County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) recently approved a $26,000 emergency grant request submitted by the Headwaters Trail Alliance (HTA) in order to assist in mitigation and removal of downed dead and healthy trees after the recent derecho/ microburst winds. Funds will come from the Open Lands, Rivers, and Trails (OLRT), which itself is funded by a 0.3% county sales tax that was approved by voters in 2016.
“Catastrophic” storm damages Grand County natural resources
On September 7 and 8, a storm pattern similar to a “derecho” moved through Grand County, downing hundreds of thousands of trees on roads, trails, and campgrounds. A derecho is a weather event, defined as “a widespread, long-lived, straight-line wind storm that is associated with a fast-moving group of severe thunderstorms known as a mesoscale convective system and potentially rivaling hurricanic and tornadic forces. Derechos can cause hurricane-force winds, tornadoes, heavy rains, and flash floods.”
The September storm was particularly notable, states Meara McQuain, Executive Director of the HTA. “It was a nuclear bomb-like wind event,” she says. “It impacted a fair number of communities
in Colorado, but Grand County was one of the worst hit.”
She explains that there were prevailing easterly winds, an anomaly in an area where most winds come from the west-southwest. Trees develop a root system in order to fortify against the stress of winds, but they were “not prepared” for the strong winds from a new orientation. “It just completely flattened trees all across the Continental Divide. Significant portions of the trail were leveled, with fallen trees stacked
up to 15 feet high in places.”
An additional challenge exists for the west end of the county, McQuain observes. She indicates that the HTA and Forest Service are highly dependent on citizen reports of damage, which have primarily come, so far, from thru-hikers of the Continental Divide Trail who have had to divert around Grand County because of the storm damage.
“We rely on the public for information about where downed trees are creating public safety issues,” she notes. “And although we anticipate it being a trouble area, we have very little information for the Troublesome and Rabbit Ears areas.” The Forest Service is the managing entity for many of these public lands and is seeking any information on these other remote forest areas.
There is further anecdotal evidence of the storm impact in West Grand. Two boats moored at Wolford Reservoir took on enough water due to the high winds that recovery efforts were needed. Both vessels were recovered with minimal damage.
Grant monies to fund road and trail cleanup
According to the grant application, awarded funds will help toward a $47,860 wind mitigation project, to pay for professional certified sawyers to assist in the clearing of trees from roads and trails in order to “ensure public safety and access to public lands and recreation infrastructure.”
HTA reports that they have been mitigating “hazard trees, deadfall, and a derecho earlier in the summer,” with work already totalling $65,000 in 2020 alone, and had cut over 4,000 trees related to this storm prior to the grant application.
“For the last five years,” it continues, “HTA has removed 2,000 –10,000 hazard trees annually. Almost 20% of HTA field work in the summer is dedicated to the removal of fallen trees from trails, especially as trails open in late spring/early summer. Injuries and fatalities due to falling trees are increasing in Colorado. Annually, hazard tree removal costs HTA almost $50,000 after accounting for staff and contractor time.”
The ask for funds comes as HTA is engaged in other scheduled projects, the USFS staff is still working on the Williams Fork Fire, and additional resources are needed to continue the reopening of trails and roads to the public.
They note that trails and roads are being cleared by the HTA, Grand Adventures, Denver Water, wildland fire crews, and other volunteers. Primary areas of concern are the Idlewild Trail System, Corona Pass, wilderness areas, Continental Divide/High Lonesome Trail, and Fraser Experimental Forest. Crews are focusing on areas with high winter recreational use, including the Jim Creek and Monarch Lake trails.
The grant request was recommended for approval by the OLRT Advisory Committee, who stated, “There is a clear need to open up priority areas of the High Lonesome Trail (ContinentalDivide Trail), Monarch Lake, and Jim Creek and to get these areas ready for winter use.The Advisory Committee encourages HTA to also address hazard tree and wildfire risk concerns in western Grand County in future grant requests.”
Headwaters Trail Alliance has committed $11,360 of the organization’s funds and time towards the most recent mitigation project, paying for crew mobilization, fuel for vehicles and machines, one week’s time of a Rocky Mountain Youth Corps crew, HTA chainsaw work, and the project management. Monies from the OLRT grant will pay for crew lodging and contracted crew wages.
The Advisory Committee went on to say that they would like to have further conversations with the BOCC “regarding County-based efforts and funds to deal with hazard trees and wildfire risk as the USFS is underfunded and this is an ongoing issue.”
For more information about the OLRT and the impact taxpayer monies are having on the “protection, conservation, and acquisition of agricultural lands, natural areas, scenic open lands, wildlife habitat, wetlands, and river access,” go to co.grand.co.us. For more information and to donate or volunteer for the Headwaters Trail Alliance, go to headwaterstrails.org.
by Marissa Lorenz