Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Before last weekend, I never knew a burned forest could be so beautiful.
Many of us have observed the temporary destruction that fire wrought on Yellowstone National Park in 1988, and some of us may have hiked through the aftermath of the volcanic eruption on Washington’s Mount St. Helens. The latter broke giant spruce trunks in half 20 feet above the ground.
But nothing prepared me for the beauty of the denuded forest that surrounds Trappers Lake in 2010.
It’s difficult for me to accept that almost eight years have passed since the summer wildfire season of 2002. That’s when the Hinman Fire transformed much of the west side of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area and the Big Fish Fire killed the dense evergreen forest surrounding Trappers Lake in the Flat Tops.
The lightning-caused Big Fish Fire came roaring off Himes Peak and altered the surroundings of Colorado’s second largest natural lake for the balance of your and my lifetimes.
I skied through the blackened forest in 2003 and admired the beauty of fireweed and arnica blossoms amidst the coal black tree trunks in 2004.
It turns out that change is constant in the recovering forests of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. All but a few of the trees have shed their blackened bark and most of their branches.
We stood on the west shore of the lake on one of the longest days of the year Saturday and watched the fading light transform the naked trees into phalanxes of silver lances marching up the steep ridges of the Flat Tops.
Gradually, the light retreated up the slopes and off the dead trees, turning the igneous parapets above them orange. And that reflected light cast a warm glow on the tree trunks again while adding copper-colored highlights to the water. Later, we talked to complete strangers at the trailhead who were as affected as we were by what we had witnessed.
Recovery of the forest is almost certain to be slow in human terms. Pat Thrasher, the public affairs officer of the White River National Forest, told me Monday it won’t be long before an increasing number of dead lodgepole pines fall to earth as their shallow root systems begin to rot.
Efforts to replant the forest have been modest, he added.
“We are doing some selected planting, but it’s minimal when you look at the whole of that area,” Thrasher said.
During a pair of hikes to higher lakes during the weekend, we were able to spot a few young lodgepole pines, perhaps 30 inches tall, that appeared to be members of a healthy new generation. Almost all of those, Thrasher said, are the result of natural regeneration.
It’s important to understand, he said, that lodgepoles are not just a fire-dependent species that relies on the heat of forest fires to release the seeds from its cones. It’s also a species of tree whose cones can withstand intense heat, and that offers hope.
However, one of the concerns of the Forest Service throughout Northwest Colorado is that after the fires, a monoculture of one species will take over.
“We’d like to encourage stand diversity with spruce, fir and aspen” trees, Thrasher said. And that’s the emphasis of the White River Forest in select areas around Trappers Lake.
I’ve learned that about 100 million years ago, the Flat Tops were an ocean floor that was uplifted by geologic forces. Then, about 24 million years ago, molten magma poured out of fissures in the earth and rendered the landscape flat. Subsequent glaciers carved out the amphitheaters and ramparts that are typical of the Flat Tops today.
No one can promise that we will someday see the restoration of the evergreen forest that once surrounded Trappers Lake. But I don’t have to go very far out on a limb to guarantee that if you make the dusty two-hour drive to the lake in the third or fourth week of July, you’ll be amazed at the ocean of magenta and yellow blossoms carpeting the forest floor.