City Forestry: Bare patches only temporary, to help Garden grow

       There's a plan behind those bare spots that have started appearing recently in the Garden of the Gods.
       The idea, according to Colorado Springs Forester Dennis Will, is to clear away “clumps” of dead or dying scrub oak as part of the fuel mitigation program in the city- owned park.
       Started two years ago, the program initially focused on removing dead brush from the side of the Garden's roads, to help reduce the risk of an accidental fire and make room for new growth. Workers with chain saws were a common sight. “Now that we've finished those, we're moving to the interior of the park, where there's less access,” he said.
       In addition, with so much thinning to do away from the road, a trunk-by-trunk chainsaw approach by itself would take too long.
       That's where the “bullhog” comes in. It's a driver-controlled machine (technically called a masticator) that breaks up and rips out clumps of oak - as well as dead mountain mahogany and sumac - then chips the brush and leaves it on top of the soil as a kind of mulch.
       Will understands how some Garden visitors might worry about the number and size of the places where clumps have been removed. However, he offered reassurances that thriving areas of vegetation (at least 70 percent alive, or individual plants with stems more than 3 inches in diameter) are left alone; that the “patches,” as he calls them should start growing back by this fall or at least next spring; and that, in the meantime, the individual open areas are not big enough to cause serious erosion.
       The city even grows its own gambel oak cuttings to put in bare spots, if needed. But the expectation is that grass and wildflowers will fill in as well.
       The City Forestry goal is to implement a “mosaic” of bare spots with the bullhog so as to emulate the favorable effects of a fire, Will explained. Even in the Hayman fire of 2002, which was “huge and very hot, there were still mosaics created,” he said.
       Another reason for cutting back dying brush throughout the park is to stop the oak borer, an insect that attacks gambel oaks.
       The idea of a prescribed burn to create mosaics, but Will believes that tactic would not necessarily clear out all the brush, and a lot of ugly stems would remain.
       The clearing work is done by contractors. With the help of donations from the Garden of the Gods Foundation (using proceeds from the Visitor Center) and grants from the U.S. Forest Service, the program is now funded for three more years, Will said.
       The city plan for this year is to thin out more than 42 acres.

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