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Project to prevent fire sparks debate in open space

Project to prevent fire sparks debate in open space

A project to clean up and mitigate a Colorado Springs open space sparked debate Wednesday as neighbors met with the city's staff forester overseeing the project.

Staff Forester Dennis Lee Will met with concerned neighbors and went over the project's developments.  The meeting between the forester and neighbors was called after some neighbors raised concern the project was wreaking havoc in vulnerable areas of the open space and too many trees were being taken down.

Will explained fires were common along the front range years ago. The fires would eliminate excessive underbrush and promote a healthier environment for natural species to flourish. Now that these areas are populated, fires can't burn.  Now, Union Meadows open space is overrun by invasive species and excessive underbrush so it's a difficult to maintain a healthy forest.

"The work we're doing would try to emulate what fire would normally do," said Will.

The project would focus on 17 acres in the open space. Will said workers from the contracted company carrying out the project were working slowly to ensure trees selected for demolition were chosen with care. 

He said the project will help the open space in the long run.

"We can see from the historical photos and the historical burn scars that our tree spacing here is way too close. We're going to start with a very light touch of thinning from below," said Will.

The project raised concern among some neighbors who attended the meeting. Workers had already carried out the project in 1 acre of the open space. One attendee said the acre looked "atrocious."

One neighbor pointed out several "special" places around the open space that he had worked to preserve and restore. He was concerned trucks and heavy equipment would destroy the vulnerable areas.

Another neighbor was concerned eliminating the underbrush would drive wildlife elsewhere for food. She also felt deceived because the city hadn't been upfront about its plan for the space.  She learned of the project when she started to see trees fall.

Will said he would be more upfront with homeowners in the future when these projects were planned for natural spaces near their neighborhoods.

Many neighbors showed up to support the project. A majority of attendees clapped when Will announced the project would help prevent future fires.

"I don't want to be one of those victims from the other two fires," said Ruth Levasseur. Her home sits atop the wooded hillside close to the open space.

"It means a lot. We've worked hard to cut the area around our house but this (open space) has always been a concern so I'm all for it," said Levasseur. "I heard people were against it and I don't understand why. To me, it's important."

Scot Hume was one of the leaders who speared the movement to protect Union Meadows. He started the campaign in 1999 and it took five years to get the area declared a protected open spaces.  He had concerns when he first heard about the project.  He felt more comfortable with the project after the meeting with the forester.

"I understand why the project have to happen. I hope that they're able to do it sensitively and carefully," said Hume.

The project will take two months to complete. Will said it typically costs $3,000 to clean up 1 acre. The project could cost around $50,000 if it cleans up 17 acres.

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