Hikers and outdoor enthusiasts will likely be forced to wait until next summer to use trails closed in the 416 Fire burn area.
The threat of flooding, mudslides and debris flows could make any trail repairs done now useless. Next year’s springtime runoff could also cause additional erosion, so the Forest Service will wait until the damage is done before starting repairs, said Gretchen Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for the San Juan National Forest.
“After the Missionary Ridge Fire, we had to do some things a couple of times, and so we’re not anxious to start working on stuff until we wait for the damage to be done so we only have to do it once and do it right,” Fitzgerald said.
A closure around the Burro Fire was lifted Tuesday, but closures remain in effect for the Aspen Loop Trail system, the Gold Run Trail, Forest Service Road 401 and Forest Service Road 402.
Over 30 miles of trails and nearly 7 miles of roads were damaged this summer by the 416 Fire, according to an assessment by a federal Burn Area Emergency Response team. However, at the time of the assessment on June 26, the fire had burned only about 34,000 acres.
Fitzgerald estimates the fire, which grew to 54,129 acres, damaged between 6 to 10 additional miles of trails since the BAER team’s assessment. A second assessment will be done in the fall, but no date has been determined, Fitzgerald said.
The burned area includes the Hermosa Creek Trail, the marquee trail in the area that runs from the Lower Hermosa Campground all the way north just west of Purgatory Resort and attracts locals and tourists.
The BAER team’s assessment was the first step to trail restoration. The assessment identified areas that were badly burned and where debris flows were likely to happen. All watersheds in the burn area remain a high risk, Fitzgerald said.
Currently, members of the Forest Service are monitoring the blaze and looking for areas of the burn that could pose an immediate threat to trails and watersheds, she said.
After the second assessment, the Forest Service will go into the burn area to assess the extent of the damage, such as erosion and dead, fallen trees. After trail damage has been assessed, trails will be prioritized by how much use they receive and how much work is required to restore them. Higher-use trails will be prioritized to be repaired and opened first, Fitzgerald said.
Much of the actual repair work will involve removing fallen trees and erosion control work.
It is possible some trails are so badly damaged that they won’t be worth salvaging, said Mary Monroe Brown, director of Trails 2000. Trails 2000 is partnered with the Forest Service to build and maintain trails in the SJNF and will be involved in the trail repair process.
One way to observe how the trail repair process plays out in the long term is to look at the Missionary Ridge trail system.
First Fork and Red Creek trails, both on the eastern side of the ridge, have erosion problems today because they were not properly repaired after the fire.
“I’m hoping we can look at more advanced techniques when we’re looking at Hermosa, and how we can rehab such an iconic trail network,” Monroe Brown said.
However, Missionary Ridge and Haflin Creek trails can both be seen as success stories.
Haflin Creek Trail was rebuilt and is now a popular route between the ridge and the valley floor. Just last year, Trails 2000 sawyers removed more than 170 fallen trees on the Missionary Ridge Trail.
Fitzgerald also points out that some trails on Missionary Ridge were never salvaged because they did not get much use.
In addition to existing trails, Trails 2000 was set to begin construction on two new trails that were planned as a part of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Management Plan. Construction of these trails will be delayed because of the fire.
At Purgatory Resort, four new trails are in the planning process, Monroe Brown said. Because of the fire, the trails’ environmental assessments have been put on hold.
The trail repair process will be a long one, so trail users will have to be patient.
“It’s going to be a huge undertaking, and we don’t exactly know the degree yet,” Monroe Brown said.