Land, Water and People: Summer is when the magic happens

Managing the 1.8 million acre Rio Grande National Forest is a monumental task. Hundreds of thousands of people visit every year using the Forest’s campgrounds, picnic areas, restrooms, fishing docks, parking areas, and extensive road and trail system. Additionally, hundreds of non-federal workers earn livings directly from the Forest through grazing permits, timber sales, concessionaire services and special use permits (e.g., outfitter and guides, Wolf Creek Ski Area, etc.).

Fulltime Forest Service employees do much of the behind the scenes work such as managing permits and conducting environmental analyses for any work that may be ground disturbing. But the real magic occurs in summer when temporary employees, forest service and county road crews, youth groups and volunteers put their boots on the ground to directly care for the forest infrastructure, and natural and cultural resources.

Timber crews composed mostly of temporary employees are integral to prepare for tree harvesting operations and carry out post harvesting work. The crews collect tree data that help foresters determine where active forest management is needed, layout the boundaries for harvesting units, and then collect more data from within those boundaries to determine the total volume of timber. Following tree harvest, the crews conduct seedling/sapling surveys to determine areas that need to be planted followed by laying out the boundaries for planting units.

Seasonal fire employees work in two general areas in an interagency capacity. In other words, they assist all the federal public lands agencies in the San Luis Valley. Some work in fire severity, that is, they become part of engine crews who patrol the public lands keeping an eye out for fire starts and then extinguish them when appropriate. Other temporary fire personnel assist with fuels management. They thin trees and brush, help with prescribed burns, and collect data before and after timber harvesting and prescribed burns to determine the change in the amount and composition of burnable materials (e.g., brush, standing and down trees, etc.).

Recreation temporary employees also come in two flavors: developed and dispersed. Those working in developed recreation clean and maintain our campgrounds that are not managed by a concessionaire. The dispersed recreation folks help maintain, and sometimes construct or reroute, motorized and non-motorized trails; collect water samples in our high elevations lakes; provide information to trail/wilderness users; and assist volunteer groups.

Wow, that’s a lot, but we’re not done. The Forest also hires a few “seasonals” to assist with range management. Early in the season these young people go out on the rangelands to assess when they will be ready for livestock to move onto them. They continue to monitor the range to determine when the livestock should be moved and collect data to determine if management goals are being met. These range technicians also ensure fences and water developments are up to snuff, conduct data on invasive species (i.e., weeds), and help maintain forest service horse corrals, fences and barns.

The Forest also hires temporary employees to work in wildlife and fisheries. Those working on the wildlife crew will mostly be gathering data in timber salvage areas to ensure the Forest is maintaining habitat for a variety of wildlife species. The fisheries seasonal will assist the fisheries biologist to monitor and restore aquatic and riparian habitat (vegetated areas along streams).

Not quite done yet…. Temporary employees: assist our heritage resource folks to conduct culture resource surveys; help maintain the Forest’s extensive road system; and work at our front desks to provide information to the tens of thousands of people who call or stop in at our offices. And, many of our temporary employees are trained and ready to assist with suppressing wildland fires.

Every year the list of work that needs to be done during the field season seems insurmountable and every year the Rio Grande National Forest meets or surpasses all or most of its targets. Much of this on-the-ground work is accomplished by a temporary workforce and volunteers. These are the unsung heroes who make the magic happen every summer.

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.