In the summer of 2002, the Missionary Ridge Fire ripped through the San Juan National Forest, burning almost 73,000 acres. Now, the Columbine Ranger District is repairing the scarred corridor surrounding Vallecito Reservoir.
According to a U.S. Forest Service report on the human-caused fire, which was exacerbated by a record drought year, 31 percent of the burn area burned at high severity and another 30 percent at moderate severity.
Gretchen Fitzgerald, a forester at the Columbine Ranger District in Bayfield, said over the past decade, pockets of aspens and oak have returned to the mountainsides.
However, in the areas that burned so hot that all tree life was killed, leaving no shade or chance for seedlings to spread, foresters decided, in 2013, to begin a reforestation project.
“A lot of people asked why we waited so long,” Fitzgerald said. “And the answer is, we wanted to let nature do what she could. In these areas, it would take centuries for plant life to come back, if it ever would.”
The total scope of the reforestation project includes 780 acres in the vicinity of Vallecito Reservoir, about 20 miles northeast of Durango. Each spring for three years, foresters are planting about 350 ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees per acre.
Last year, the Forest Service tackled 230 acres, and a few weeks ago, the agency finished another 230 acres. Next spring will be the last replanting season, wrapping up the effort.
Fitzgerald said 2014’s survival rate was “terrific” – just about 99 percent – largely because of the high levels of rain and snow. She expects this year to bring the same favorable results.
The project, intended to benefit the area’s watershed and wildlife habitat, will also hold a positive impact for the corridor into and around the Vallecito community.
Fitzgerald estimated that in about 10 years a small yet noticeable forest of trees will start to dot the hillsides.
“It will be an absolutely awesome thing,” said Lark Kokesh, co-owner of the Elk Point Lodge. “That first impression (into Vallecito) is so important. I think it’s wonderful and thank the Forest Service.”
Donna Atkinson, a partner at Pine River Lodge, said the business routinely fields questions from visitors about the damaged mountainsides. Some presume it’s beetle kill, so she explains how the massive fire came uncomfortably close to town.
“We tell them we were very lucky, because we personally only lost one cabin,” said Atkinson, whose family has owned the lodge for 57 years. “So I think it’s wonderful (the Forest Service is replanting).”
Even volunteers have joined the reforesting campaign, focusing on areas that are not on Forest Service land. That effort is largely led by Gary Hargrove, an Oklahoma native who has visited Vallecito every year since he was 2 years old.
“I fell in love with the area,” said Hargrove, now 58. “I had come every year, and it never changed. It was just the one place you could go – unlike the rest of the world – that never changed.
“When the fire happened, it felt like a personal injury to me because I loved the area,” he said. “From all my years remembering it, it looks nothing like it used to.”
So, Hargrove called the Forest Service and asked to hold a tree-planting event. Last year, through the help of Trails 2000, a group of volunteers planted 2,300 ponderosa and Douglas seedlings. This year’s round of planting will be held at 9 a.m. Saturday.
“We had such a high turnout last year,” said Mary Monroe, executive director of Trails 2000. “I think people appreciate giving back to the land, and, it’s not as difficult work as swinging a Pulaski.”
Monroe said erosion from the fire, which leads to tree fall, ravaged the area northeast of Durango. As an organization tasked with maintaining trails, Trails 2000 recently adopted the Missionary Ridge Trail.
Last year, crews cleared 135 downed trees.
“We just really wanted to help give back to the area hurt by the Missionary Ridge Fire,” she said.
Fitzgerald said, as an added bonus, the Forest Service will offer native ponderosa seedlings that were left over from this year’s reforestation project from Friday to April 29.
Donations are encouraged, which will be funneled through the agency to help fund the replanting of burned areas in the San Juan National Forest.