Chain saw takes place of fire at Garden
Foundation-funded City Parks program thins out dead/dying gambel oak brush

       Nobody wants a fire at the Garden of the Gods.
       In a way, that's a problem.
       Fire used to be the way nature would clear out accumulations of dead brush from gambel oak, according to City Forester Dennis Will. “Ecologically, it should burn every 5, 10 or 50 years,” he said. “Brush wants to be burned. But it hasn't burned. We stopped that 100 years ago.”
       A few years ago, in the wake of a drought that started in the mid-1990s, City Parks officials started noticing increasing amounts of dead oak at the Garden. A lot of it was alongside heavily traveled roads through the city park. The thinking was that a single cigarette tossed from a car could potentially set everything on fire.
       In 2005, the city started what it calls a “fuel mitigation” program to thin out the dead or dying brush. In place of fire's destructive heat are crews using chain saws and chippers. “We're literally emulating what fire would do,” Will said. The chipping results in small pieces of dead wood on the ground - similar to the way a forest floor might be after a fire. These pieces then “go back into the soil with the first rainfall,” he explained.
       Another reason for cutting back the brush is to stop the oak borer, an insect that attacks gambel oaks. The insect thrives on bushes that have been “stressed” by lack of water, Will pointed out. Its assault, in turn, kills even more of the plant, increasing the potential fuel for a fire.
       Having primarily focused on the roads through the first two years of the program, “now we want to work on the interior, where people have picnics and go hiking,” Will said. “Then, if funding permits, we can move into the rest of the park.”
       Another target area is the park land that abuts private residences. “We want to build a buffer between ourselves and the neighborhoods - so if there's a fire in the garden, it won't go into their neighborhood,” he said.
       A similar strategy is being used in the city's North Cheyenne Canon Park, which also has homes nearby, he noted.
       The fuel mitigation program spent $62,000 in 2005. The thinning continued with a $55,000 budget this year and is expected to keep going at least through 2008.
       The program is funded by donations from the Garden of the Gods Foundation. These come from an annual percentage of earnings from the Garden's privately owned Visitor and Nature Center - augmented last year by the foundation's Summer of Celebration fund-raising that commemorated the first decade of the center's relocation to a site next to the Garden at 30th Street and Gateway Road. Foundation money also is used for other Garden needs, including staff, equipment, weed control, safety efforts, studies, school programs and signage.
       “The foundation plays a huge role,” said City Parks Maintenance Director Kurt Schroeder. “We rely on them a great amount for things we're able to accomplish at the Garden of the Gods. It's a spectacular partnership.”
       One of the city's foundation-funded Garden projects has the goal - believe it or not - of growing gambel oak. But there is no conflict with the fuel mitigation program, Schroeder said. Under the $35,000 revegetation effort this year and next, oak cuttings are nurtured in the city greenhouse, then planted in bare areas - many caused by park users making their own trails - to help reverse erosion problems.
       A fire would never have thought of that.

Westside Pioneer article