published: August 2019

Commentary

Our most valuable legacy: The Baca Grande creeks & greenbelts

by John Rowe

One day last September my dogs and I had three separate encounters with a large black bear who kept showing up along the South Crestone Creek trail we were hiking. He was not concerned with my howling dogs or my presence, just mildly curious. The third encounter occurred when we came up over a small rise and there he was, standing in the middle of the trail less than a hundred feet away. Bears are very big at this range and I feared for our safety; I have seen them run. Fortunately, he just looked wistfully at us and our intrusion into his home and sauntered away. We saw another bear only a couple of weeks ago and this time he left us a large smelly calling card of poop which one of my dogs promptly rolled in. Three baths later, she still stank. Perhaps it was the same bear getting some revenge on me for disturbing his peace. I have also seen very fresh lion tracks in newly fallen snow and I am most grateful I did not see her as my dogs were with me then also.

Life for us who walk the creeks often is often filled with these little dramas and of course, endless beauty that changes from season to season and sometimes, from day to day. I walk three or four miles almost every day along these creeks, my most favorites being South Crestone Creek and upper Spanish Creek. Lower Cottonwood Creek in the fall can be breathtaking as well, with lots of big owls and deer to keep life interesting. One October day I saw three bull elk as big as horses strolling along like they didn’t have a care in the world. Looking for a little romance was my thinking.

And the most amazing part of this adventure is that I usually have the creeks all to myself, save a few  of the regulars I run into all the time. One young woman looks to be on a walking meditation when I see her and she smiles broadly at me like we are Brothers and Sisters of the Magical Creeks. And indeed we are, those of us who live here among the junipers, cottonwoods, and aspen and the myriad of creatures, big and small, we see here. I have learned to spot these regulars a long way off, we see each other so often.

Lately I have conducted brief interviews with each of them, always asking the same question. “Have you seen the mitigation efforts on South Crestone Creek above the park? What do you think?” The answers are similar; an acknowledgement that “fire mitigation is a good thing, but did they have to go so far? It seems sort of naked and the big road that has replaced the footpath is just too much.”

No one has yelled or ranted, most that I have talked to who use the trail just wish a gentler hand could have been used to leave it in a more natural state. Not everyone agrees; the POA reports that about half like it and half do not. Posts on Facebook would seem to me to be about the same split. Adam Moore, the POA’s expert who is a Supervisory Forester for the Colorado State Forest Service, thinks it is just fine and maybe even a little light. Another considered source thinks likewise. So what to do? It looks more like a park in spots than a forest and the road is unsightly by just about any reasonable standard.

This is by no means a condemnation of the POA Board. They have done a commendable job in trying to bring the Baca into standards necessary to become a Firewise Community and have done well in securing the Baca sales tax funds from the County and State to do some real fire mitigation efforts. They have responsibly relied on the advice from experts and the POA guys have done a great job in carrying out the task. No one did anything wrong on any side of this issue. But sometimes there are solutions to problems that are a better fit than others.

I would suggest and I know experts agree that mitigating the piñon and juniper corridors surrounding all Chalet housing could also be a very effective means of keeping fire from, or at least slowing it down from getting to homes. And possibly saving property and lives in the process, which is everyone’s goal. Fire travels much faster under most  circumstances through the piñon and juniper stands than it does in riparian corridors like our creeks.

The POA commissioned and paid for a study prepared by John Sovell, zoologist for the College of Natural Resources, Colorado State University, in 2005. It is quite an extensive document, over 100 pages of valuable information about the Baca as a whole, ecologically speaking. The overall conclusion is that the riparian corridors, our creek greenbelts, are in “fair to good condition”,  not a designation that Mr. Sovell uses lightly. This speaks well of the entire community and all POA governing, practically from the POA’s inception. What keeps the designation from being only “good” is the fact that homes in some Baca locales can be built directly on the riparian zone and no buffer region exists in these neighborhoods. These were decisions made by people sixty years ago and are beyond fixing. So good for us and all those who have gone before us. This is what Mr. Sovell has to say about fire mitigation in the Baca. He quotes experts (bibliography included in the report) on this, stating  “In lower montane corridors riparian fires are presumably uncommon due to the high moisture content of riparian soils and vegetation, and the low frequency of lightning strikes in low lying drainages and valley bottoms where riparian areas occur.” And that there is “few data available on the natural frequency of fire in riparian ecosystems; however fire was highly variable and depended on site-specific fuels and conditions.”

The BLM and Forest Service was convinced enough that they mitigated and thinned the piñon and juniper surrounds in an area directly above town a few years ago. They removed dense clusters of small trees, allowing more room for individual trees to grow.  Hopes are that any wildfire breakouts will be significantly slowed to allow effective fire fighting measures to save the town from extensive damage.

So I would ask everyone to think about this. Perhaps it is very possible that we can leave our beautiful and, yes, downright magical creeks alone and concentrate money and time mitigating the part of our woodlands (the piñon and juniper stands) that will not be aesthetically altered too much and may very well turn out to be just as effective or more so as cutting up the greenbelts.  And for those of you who are physically able and have not been up any of our creek trails lately, come on up, there is plenty of room for all of you. Be reminded as I am every day, that we are very lucky to live in such a blessed place.