The total number of trees Gretchen Fitzgerald has helped plant in the San Juan National Forest during her time as a forester for the U.S. Forest Service topped out at 2,183,557.
“Reforesting areas that used to be forest and bringing that back, it felt like the right thing to do,” Fitzgerald said. “My part was one little part of that whole picture.”
Fitzgerald started as a forester with the Forest Service in 1998, but it wasn’t until around 2008 that she started to lead reforestation projects throughout Southwest Colorado.
During her time, she helped facilitate the replanting of more than 2 million trees across 5,500 acres, focusing on areas such as the burn scar on Missionary Ridge and old clear-cutting zones around Wolf Creek Pass.
Recently, Fitzgerald decided it was time for the next adventure, taking a job as the ecosystem staff officer with the Sequoia National Forest in California. Still, her legacy, which can be seen across the landscape, will live on.
“Gretchen worked on the San Juan for over 20 years, and during that time facilitated the planting of millions of trees,” said Kara Chadwick, San Juan National Forest supervisor.
“Equally important, however, are the contributions that Gretchen made in the agency and in local communities, bringing people together in the spirit of learning and helping to restore health and resilience to the SJNF,” Chadwick said.
Fitzgerald grew up in Bayfield after her parents, Jim and Terri, decided to move West and settled in Southwest Colorado in the 1970s, with her dad taking a job at Fort Lewis College teaching Spanish.
There, with the HD Mountains looming overhead, Fitzgerald spent a lot of time playing in the woods, developing a love of nature. So when she went to college, she majored in wildlife biology, naturally.
But over time, Fitzgerald realized wildlife biologists tend to deal with more analyses and paperwork. What she wanted to do was work in the field and get projects done. So she went back to school and got her masters in forestry.
“I felt like I should do something for climate change,” she said.
Trees have had a tough go of it during the past few decades in the San Juan National Forest. They are under pressure from massive wildfires, a spruce beetle outbreak and prolonged drought.
At the time Fitzgerald launched her career, there wasn’t a huge emphasis on reforestation projects. But around 2008, Fitzgerald was exposed to her first replanting project, led by the Bureau of Land Management, and it clicked.
“I thought, ‘This makes so much sense, why aren’t we doing this?” she said. “We should be doing more reforestation, and I can make this happen.”
Indeed, Fitzgerald got to work.
The first replanting happened near Vallecito, up Middle Mountain Road, where a fire impacted the area around Bear Creek. Then, around 2010, she focused projects around the burn scar of Missionary Ridge.
Her projects spread all around – above Lemon Reservoir, swaths across Missionary Ridge from Vallecito to Durango, Wolf Creek Pass and over to parts of the upper Hermosa Creek.
“I did a lot of experimenting to get the best survival I could,” she said. “If I had a failure, I’d figure out why and try something new. I had different challenges to give myself to figure out the best ways to plant trees in the San Juans.”
To be sure, replanting forests is not an exact science and an ever-evolving field. Fitzgerald, for instance, quickly learned that seedlings from Wolf Creek Pass did not do as well when used on Missionary Ridge, despite the relative proximity.
And Fitzgerald became even more ambitious as the years wore on. In 2019, for example, she led a project that replanted trees on old mine waste rock piles at an abandoned mine site near Silverton.
Leading the effort to restore impacted forests, mostly in areas that are not showing signs of natural regeneration, has created a unique bond for Fitzgerald to the landscape around Southwest Colorado.
“I love going back and visiting them,” she said. “I can remember when we planted it (and) watch it grow.”
Recently, Fitzgerald said she decided it was time for a new challenge, taking a job on the Sequoia National Forest, which takes her more out of the field and into the office directing all sorts of divisions – wildlife, hydrology, range, timber.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, her move to California was delayed, but is likely to happen this summer. She said she’s excited for the whole new host of issues a new forest brings, especially one with 3,000-year-old trees.
“There’s a little nostalgia for sure,” she said. “But I feel like I did a good job and it’s time for someone else to take the reins.”