Number of treatment acres handled by the agency triples in Chaffee County
The Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) has added three full-time foresters and expanded the size of its Salida-area field office to accommodate the new staff.
“We tripled the amount of work getting accomplished in Chaffee County since we updated the Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 2020,” Forester J.T. Shaver said. “We’ve also leveraged the local Common Ground funding with multiple state and federal grants to pay for a lot of mitigation work in the next three to four years.”
Shaver was promoted this year to Lead Forester and is in charge of the Chaffee Treats Forest Health & Wildfire Mitigation Program. Chaffee Treats helps private landowners take action to reduce risk and restore forest health in treatment priority areas outlined in the community wildfire plan.
Full-time foresters hired since 2020 include Kellie Eldridge, Josh Kuehn and Mercedes Siegle-Gaither. Jeff McGinnis continues as seasonal forester working in the spring and summer. The Salida Field Office is overseen by Supervisory Forester Adam Moore, based in Alamosa, and Southwest Area Manager Damon Lange.
The new positions are chiefly funded by a $5.7 million Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service awarded to Chaffee County in 2021.
Mitigation treatments address the threat of wildfire by thinning trees to reduce both the amount of dead and dry wood fuel in the forests and number of trees to create canopy separation. Treatments are based on the county’s wildfire plan that prioritizes this work by mapping Treatment Priority Areas on both public and private lands.
CSFS foresters provide technical forestry assistance, expertise and education to help individuals and communities implement wildfire mitigation projects. The agency is a partner in Chaffee Chips, a slash haul away and chipping service that has assisted more than 400 landowners to remove 1,400 piles of slash from wildland-urban interface neighborhoods.
Added forestry staff means the agency can work with many more homeowners, Shaver said. “The big result we’re looking for is healthier forests. A site visit and education is good but it’s great when we can get work done from that visit.”
Office staff provide free personalized property assessments and frequently work with groups of homeowners to connect treatments within neighborhoods and across jurisdictional boundaries, such as to nearby National Forest lands. Call (719) 539-2579 to schedule an appointment.
The Salida Field Office currently works on these collaborative projects in 14 areas of the county, Shaver said. “The treatment areas cover everything from south of Poncha Pass to just south of Granite. We’re not just focused on the number of acres but treating the right areas.”
The CSFS has planned and completed projects on state and city land and even worked with the Bureau of Land Management to connect work on the Methodist Mountain community fuel break to federal lands, Shaver said. “We’re doing a really great job of spreading the positive impacts across the entire county.”
In addition to wildfire mitigation, the CSFS Salida Field Office assists in urban and community forestry management. In spring 2022, Siegle-Gaither, one of the new full-time foresters, wrote a tree management plan for the City of Salida’s parks.
Envision Chaffee County identified wildfire threat as a top concern during its 2017-18 community visioning and planning effort. The initiative facilitated the community wildfire plan update in 2020, and it continues to help the Forest Health Council’s 44 partners design and fund a suite of programs and projects that implement the plan’s goals.
“It has been tremendously inspiring to see the many forest health partners come together in the basin for a common purpose,” said Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt, Envision Co-lead and Forest Health Council member. “We are definitely achieving so much more together than we could as separate agencies.”
Council partners to-date have raised $21.5 million for projects that include a strategically placed fuel break on Methodist Mountain to protect the Salida and Poncha Springs communities of 7,000 people. Read the latest CWPP Annual Community Report for more information.
Photos are by Big River Collective.