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Fire crews work to battle the Grizzly Creek Fire on Tuesday, August 11. (Chelsea Self / Glenwood Springs Post Independent via AP).
Environment

Are Wildfires a Natural Solution to Overcrowding on Colorado’s Trails?

It has been a massive (and in some cases tragic) year for Colorado wildfires. One silver lining? Some fragile ecosystems may now be able to recover without human impact.

“I’d rather it gets destroyed by nature than people. Maybe now it can properly heal.” I told this to a friend of mine as the news broke back in August that the Grizzly Creek Fire had engulfed the area around Colorado’s most famous waterbody: Hanging Lake. I had visited it in 2015 during a weekday and, even then, it was overrun with tourists hoping to view the lake’s striking, aqua-blue waters. Don’t get me wrong, I was one of those tourists too. But as a quick (albeit steep) one-mile hike up the canyon, Hanging Lake is notorious for people trying to snag a unique angle for that perfect photo—even if that means damaging the environment around it. That day, as I stood on the boardwalk surrounding the lake precariously sitting on the cliff’s edge, I watched two people try to walk across the log that juts out into the middle of the lake and another person discard their granola bar wrapper on the ground—both of which are illegal.

I’ve had similar experiences at other well-known places in Colorado, like the Maroon Bells, Mount Sneffels Wilderness, and Brainard Lake Recreation Area. It seems no matter where we go in the state, the trails are under threat from humans. However, the largest recorded wildfire in Colorado’s history is now burning just west of Fort Collins and dangerously encroaching on a beloved landmark in Colorado: Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). Currently burning more than 200,000 acres and only 52 percent contained, the Cameron Peak fire has forced trail closures in all areas north of Trail Ridge Road.

Oy.

As I sit here, watching tweet after tweet from the Canyon Lakes Ranger District (a pastime I have picked up during this record-breaking fire year), my heart is sinking. Everything could be lost. So many beautiful landscapes, alpine lakes, generations of wildlife, and unbelievable landmarks could be gone to all the next generations. How incredibly tragic.

But then I thought: Well, maybe it was going to be lost anyway?

Here’s what I mean.

Colorado’s population has increased monumentally within the past 10 years and the trails have followed suit. Take Hanging Lake, for example. Only eight years ago, the popular destination had about 15,000 visitors per month during peak season. That doubled to 31,000 visitors in 2016. Two years later, just over 40,000 people visited the locale during the busy summer months. Due to that high trail traffic, erosion problems, and overall damage to the sensitive ecosystem, a reservation and shuttle system was implemented in 2019, capping daily visitation to just 615 people per day (averaging about 19,000 per month).

Hanging Lake. Photo courtesy of Focqus, LLC/Getty Images

I would argue that’s still too much traffic on one short trail. I look at other places with environments just as sensitive (and views as picturesque), like the Wave in Arizona. The Bureau of Land Management (the agency in charge of the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness) allows only 20 permits per day. That’s 30 times fewer people per day than Hanging Lake’s current permit system, and that means 30 times fewer granola bar wrappers, reckless activity, and erosion.

COVID-19 has forced a lot of agencies to enforce reservations systems like the one put in place at RMNP to aid in social distancing. And yet, the trails are still too crowded, and people are still damaging the ecosystem; in some cases, it’s even worse because facilities are closed and humans are, inherently, used to throwing garbage away before they get back to their car. So, when a fire runs rampant through an ecosystem and destroys a trail, maybe it’s not necessarily a bad thing. These popular trailheads need a complete reset to get a breather from human activity, and the Grizzly Creek fire gave that to Hanging Lake, just like the Cameron Peak fire is now doing for our beloved RMNP.

Even if the fires are contained quickly, areas will likely stay closed for several months (at the very least) until crews can get in to mitigate the damage and rebuild the sections of trail that have been damaged. As a former ecologist specializing in soil science, I understand the impacts of fires like these ones. The ground is much more unstable after a fire scorches an area. Thick layers of ash now blanketing the forest floor makes it much more susceptible to mud- and rockslides and overall erosion.

But there are also several benefits of wildfire. In fact, an ecosystem may need it. Take lodgepole pine, for example. This pine tree stretches across 1.5 million acres of the Centennial State and needs fire to reproduce. They have serotinous cones (meaning they are resin-sealed) that can only open and drop seeds if the resin is melted with high heat during a fire. Another favorite tree of Colorado, the quaking aspen, is considered a pioneer species—a species that comes in after a disturbance, grows quickly, and assists in soil stabilization. So more open spaces after a fire means more aspens for your viewing pleasure during Colorado’s epic autumn seasons.

As an outdoor advocate and avid adventurer myself, I waffle between preserving the land and recreating on it. I realize it’s a delicate balance. I’m a firm believer that the more people get outside, the better. Seeing and appreciating these beautiful landscapes will eventually create more stewards of our public lands. But I also believe this is only true if there’s a gradual increase in the amount of people who are hitting one trail. If one trail gets overrun with visitors in a mere few years, like Hanging Lake, there’s not a lot that we can do other than let it be destroyed by people or regulate visitation (whether that means to implement a permit system or close it down completely).

But sometimes, Mother Nature just steps in.

Remember Yellowstone in 1988? Yeah, me neither–I was four. But I’ve since learned about it. Over one-third of the park was burned and, with it, many of the majestic animals that roamed those grounds, including elk, bison, deer, and moose died. Now, over 30 years later, Yellowstone is thriving with life. Nature can bounce back, especially after a fire. Many times, it creates what’s called a “mosaic landscape” with burned areas, partially burned areas, and unburned areas. This type of land pattern provides natural firebreaks for future fire prevention and sustains a greater variety of plant and animal species creating a healthier ecosystem overall.

Wildfires nowadays, however, are larger, hotter, and simply more intense. Catastrophic fires that occur in the 21st century are more likely to destroy an entire ecosystem without any hope of it returning to the way it was. Take the Hayman fire from 2002, which burned just northwest of Colorado Springs: 18 years later and there still aren’t trees returning due to their seed source being completely lost. The earth was scorched so terribly, none of the original ecosystem was left. Because of climate change (consistently drier and warmer seasons), large fuel loads due to the forest mismanagement (either by choice or sheer lack of a workforce), and decades of fire suppression, these fires will continue to wipe out entire ecosystems.

So with that, I’m not saying that every popular trail needs to be set on fire—that wouldn’t be good for many reasons. What I am saying is that sometimes, certain areas need to be closed or regulated for some time so they can recover. That might be one year, it might be 25 years, it might be indefinitely. I, for one, would rather never be able to visit some beautiful, natural wonders of our country if it meant that it would continue to provide a healthy ecosystem for its inhabitants. Maybe in time, word will no longer spread like wildfire (pun intended) of the next beautiful place to snap a photo for Instagram and our trails can finally begin to heal.

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