by Rick Langenberg:
For many visitors, Teller County may evoke images of Pikes Peak, the 1890s gold rush, Cripple Creek gaming, camping and hiking pursuits and even some great eateries. But for government leaders, Teller is becoming the undisputed tree-thinning king of Colorado, with a hefty supply of federal and state grant dollars for projects aimed at treating thousands of acres of public/private lands overpopulated with pines, Douglas firs, aspens and way too much vegetation. And to the surprise of some, this new post-Hayman fire look ideally features areas with only 30 to 40 trees per acre, rather than 400 or 500. According to local officials, this tree-elimination work heavily reduces fire risks and may even help boost the economy by providing an alternative energy source.
Last week, Jim Ignatius, chairman of the Teller County Commissioners, informed his peers that the region has snagged another key tree-thinning grant by the Front Range Roundtable group, paving the way for the reduction of huge swaths of heavily forested areas in Teller and El Paso counties around the Rampart Reservoir region outside Woodland Park. This Rampart project, representing about 67,000 acres, got the top billing by the Roundtable group during a recent meeting. With this designation, the stage is now set for Teller to continue its accelerated pace of assaulting heavily forested areas in sections surrounding Teller for at least another 15 years. The Rampart project still has to get the approval of the National Environmental Protection Agency, but local officials don’t see this as a huge hurdle. “This will give us (fuel mitigation) protection from the north, west, south and now the east,” said Ignatius at last week’s commissioners meeting. “We will be covered on all sides.”
Altogether, Teller has reaped the collective benefits of $6 million a year in forest service grants and related monies for fuel mitigation projects in the area. And based on an aggressive schedule of new projects, this process is expected to continue. According to Ignatius, the Front Range Roundtable group has identified about 1.5 million acres of heavily forested areas that should be thinned to reduce fires. A good portion of this targeted area is located in the Teller County/Ute Pass corridor. Ignatius said this year major work will continue in Teller north of Hwy. 24. And next year, a significant fuel mitigation effort, referred to as the Catamount project, will get underway south of Teller, around the North Slope of Pikes Peak. Then, the Rampart project will probably get started in 2015.
The Teller region, through various contract arrangements with the forest service and with the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), will continue its aggressive rate of thinning about 6,000 acres a year. Ignatius estimates that it costs about $1,000 an acre to do most of the tree-clearing and thinning work that is now required. The commission chairman says this intensive work on local private and public lands has given Teller County the title as Colorado’s tree-thinning champ for fuel mitigation projects. While the county struggles to receive many state and federal grants in a tighter economy, the region has hit the jackpot when it comes to receiving monies collectively for removing trees. “A lot of other counties are mad,” quipped Ignatius, in referring to the competition for the fuel mitigation dollars. “They are not happy. But we were in the right position at the right time. We have done very well.” “We want to become the poster child of tree-thinning,” said Ignatius, when the program kicked into high gear in 2009.
Ignatius attributes Teller’s remarkable funding success in the tree-reduction arena to the fact that the county was the first entity in the state to develop a community-wide fire protection plan, following the Hayman blaze of 2002. Plus, he says Teller’s proximity to a fairly large metropolitan area has helped. And unlike certain parts of the fire-prone sections of the state, such as Boulder, the county hasn’t gotten bogged down with environmental challenges. Teller gained the initial tree-thinning spotlight when the Woodland Park Healthy Forest Initiative was snagged as a top pilot program several years ago. The commissioner also credits CUSP for taking a lead role in educating the public about the benefits of fuel mitigation work and getting many subdivisions on board.