The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s extensive fire mitigation project this spring was shut down after the U.S. Forest Service broached concerns about the number of trees being cut down and sold to a logging company.
John Harper, general manager of American Heritage Railways, which owns the D&SNG, said the railroad took the opportunity of the COVID-19 shutdown to redirect staff to work on the tree-cutting project.
The project focused on the 100-foot right of way on each side of the railroad’s tracks from the Cascade station to Silverton as the D&SNG cuts through the San Juan National Forest.
Harper said a contractor started cutting and removing anything that might fuel a wildfire or cause a derailment on the D&SNG’s right of way.
Downed trees, Harper said, were sold to the Dolores-based IronWood Mill, which the D&SNG contracted to cut down the trees.
The D&SNG completed 8 miles of the project before the Forest Service sent the railroad a cease-and-desist order May 27.
“Members of the public and Forest Service resource specialists have raised a number of concerns about ... clearing activities currently being conducted along the railroad right-of-way,” San Juan National Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick wrote in the order.
Harper said hikers criticized the railroad’s work as a large logging operation. He said the D&SNG did not inform the Forest Service of its project because the railroad isn’t required to notify the agency of work in its right of way.
“There’s been some misrepresentation because people consider it logging,” Harper said. “But any salvageable timber was taken out of the canyon so it could be put to good use rather than be disposed of or wasted.”
Chadwick maintained that while the D&SNG has authority to maintain its right of way, the track crosses and is adjacent to National Forest land, and federal law requires the railroad to inform the agency of any work that may go beyond routine maintenance.
“The regulation requires you inform the Forest Service in order to obtain a determination that the work is routine ... and is therefore exempt from permit requirements,” she wrote.
Mark Lambert of the Forest Service said the agency has heard reports of large and old trees that were cut down, and that slash piles have been left on the side of the tracks.
“That’s one of the things that led us to want to get an idea what happened out there,” he said. “We just need to get a better idea.”
Harper said the D&SNG project is for the safety of the railroad, its passengers and the forest in preventing wildfire and derailment. He noted the community has called on the railroad in recent years to do more to prevent fires.
“One of the chief complaints we hear is about fire mitigation,” he said. “And now we’re actively mitigating and people are concerned and upset about it.”
Selling the timber helps offset the costs of the fire mitigation and is not intended to make a profit, Harper said. He also noted the D&SNG financial difficulties during the past few years with shutdowns forced by fires and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The D&SNG also is involved in three lawsuits that seek to recoup millions of dollars in damages related to the 416 Fire, which the Forest Service says the railroad started in June 2018.
“A project like this costs hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “No revenue is being made on removing timber. That timber is being removed for fire mitigation and to prevent derailment.”
In her letter, Chadwick said the Forest Service is generally supportive of any effort toward fire mitigation, but it is concerned it was not notified of the project and that “not all of the work completed to date is reasonable and necessary to address wildfire concerns.”
She cited one area between the Cascade station and the Needleton stop that is “arguably more susceptible to ignition and the spread of wildfire than it was before the work started.”
“I understand that there is a plan to deal with the slash and debris left behind eventually, but given the extreme drought conditions ... I am concerned about the new risks that exist in that area,” she said.
Esther Godson, spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said Thursday the situation remains under investigation and the agency has no further comment.
Harper said there are three phases to the project: removing weeds and brush next to the track; removing large vegetation and trees within the right of way; and eliminating fuels piled on the forest floor that present a fire danger. All slash piles will be removed or burned in a controlled manner, he said.
“We’re not removing all of the trees, but there are certain areas considered high-hazard areas where we removed a large amount,” he said. “We’ve never done something this big. This is a significant mitigation project.”
Harper said the D&SNG hopes to resume in July.
“We are going to continue north toward Silverton,” he said.