The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forest is continuing a multi-year project to reforest the Slumgullion/Spring Creek Pass area along Colorado Highway 149 (designated as the Silver Thread Scenic Byway) southeast of Lake City, Colorado. 2019 will be the fourth year of the five or six year project.
Since 2010, southwestern Colorado has been affected by a severe spruce bark beetle epidemic which has killed nearly 100% of the Engelmann spruce trees across over 500,000 acres (200,000 acres on the Gunnison Ranger District alone).
The Silver Thread Scenic Byway meanders through dense stands of Engelmann spruce. The highway corridor was known as a “green tunnel” because of the towering spruce trees along the highway. Visibility out of the “green tunnel” on Slumgullion and Spring Creek Passes was limited. With the attack of spruce bark beetles, the “green tunnel” became a “brown tunnel”. The dead spruce trees posed a major safety hazard to the travelling public with the risk of trees falling to the highway.
In 2013, the West Fork Complex fires burned 105,000 acres of spruce beetle impacted forest fifteen miles to the south, forcing a month long closure of the highway to public travel. The highway closure had a significantly negative economic impact to the Lake City and Creede communities which rely on the summertime recreational industry.
As a part of restoration efforts, a wide fuelbreak was created along the Colorado Highway 149 corridor on Slumgullion Pass to allow the highway to remain open (within safety limits) during a large wildfire event. The highway corridor fuelbreak was cleared in 2014 and 2015. The view of scenery from the highway is now very good. Tree planting of the fuelbreak was completed in 2017. Initial planting success has been very good at 96% survival in the first year.
Timber harvest in stands adjacent to the immediate highway corridor has continued from 2014 to the current time. The planned tree planting for 2019 is in those nearby stands. The renewed forest will in time improve the quality of the scenery in the area. New trees will provide cover and habitat for Canada lynx and other wildlife species which had been impacted by the severe mortality.
In 2019, the Forest Service will be hosting a fourth annual volunteer tree planting day. This year, lodgepole pine will be planted at Slumgullion Summit to create the start of a living snow fence to mitigate snow drifting on the highway. In the previous three years, 2,500 spruce and bristlecone pine seedlings have been planted on ten acres around the Slumgullion Winter Trailhead by the volunteers.