An effort to restore the forests of Wolf Creek Pass has planted nearly 200,000 trees since 2019.
Gretchen Fitzgerald, a former forester with the San Juan National Forest, said the forests atop Wolf Creek Pass between Pagosa Springs and South Fork have faced a number of impacts over the years including clear-cutting and beetle kill.
Years ago, the pass in Southwest Colorado saw extensive clear-cutting. Before those forests could recover, a beetle infestation broke out in the 2000s, sweeping through nearly 1 million acres and killing 90% of Engelmann spruce trees.
A two-year project that started in 2019 sought to replant those clear-cut areas, as well as some beetle-kill swaths where the understory of the forests was not seeing natural regeneration, Fitzgerald said.
In 2019, about 70,000 Engelmann spruce trees were planted across 175 acres. In 2020, an additional 115,750 or so trees were restored on more than 270 acres, through a partnership with the nonprofit One Tree Planted.
“We’re trying to restore the forest where it’s not coming back on its own,” Fitzgerald said.
Stephanie Rochemont, a senior project manager for One Tree Planted, said the preferred and least expensive option, of course, is to have a forest naturally regenerate on its own.
But some areas are so damaged by clear-cutting, she said, reforestation efforts may be needed to kick-start regrowth.
“This was a place that needed our help,” she said. “There were no seed trees left to naturally regenerate the forest.”
The most recent planting happened over 10 days in September, with the help of Fort Lewis College students, local Boy Scout troops and volunteers taking part in National Public Lands Day on Sept. 28.
“We’re confident we don’t need to baby the seedlings,” Rochemont said.
And if successful, One Tree Planted hopes the project will benefit lynx and boreal owl habitat.
“A lot of timber stands are planted close together for the highest yield, but we don’t support projects like that,” Rochemont. “We support increasing habitat for wildlife.”
Yet several factors can impede the replanting’s success.
Climate change, for one, is changing environments, especially in Southwest Colorado, where a prolonged drought is affecting the region, as well as above-average temperatures.
“Our world is changing, so we’re ensuring that we’re helping our forests change,” Rochemont said.
Fitzgerald, too, said increased snowmobile use atop Wolf Creek Pass can damage replantings. Snowmobiles can drive over newly planted seedlings, chopping off the top of trees. And, the vehicles can compact snow and reduce oxygen to the plants beneath.
“Snowmobiles have the potential to impact regenerating forests,” she said.
Because the replanting is so new, it is too soon to say if the seedlings will take hold. The area, however, receives a lot of snow and moisture, which makes chances for survival high, Rochemont said.
Within three to five years, foresters will be able to tell if the effort was successful. Long-term, it may take several decades for the area to become a fully established forest again, Rochemont said.