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Down in the valley

June 15, 2012

The root system of just three of the trees blown down by the big windstorm in Reds Meadow Valley last winter dwarfs Inyo National Forest North Zone trails and wilderness supervisor Michael Morse and the restroom behind him that narrowly escaped being destroyed that November night. Tens of thousands more such trees carpet the campgrounds and trails of the valley.

The moment the road to Reds Meadow opens every summer, it’s like a green light goes on. Mammoth’s economy jumps into hyperdrive and doesn’t slow again until Labor Day.

An average of about 100,000 visitors come through Mammoth just to get to the Reds Meadow valley, many bound for the Devils Postpile National Monument. They spend about $2.8 million every summer in Mammoth and the surrounding communities.

It’s a big number and some might say Reds Meadow is to Mammoth summers what Mammoth Mountain is to Mammoth winters.

“The number one question visitors ask when they call in is about the Devils Postpile,” said Mammoth’s tourism chief, John Urdi. “It’s a huge benefit to this economy.”

That means getting Reds Meadow Road open is a high priority. In the past, the snow depth defined when that happened.

This time, though, after one of the driest winters on record, during a spring that should have seen an early opening day record, it’s the trees.

On the night of Nov. 30 and into the cold dark hours of the morning of Dec. 1, the big lodgepole and red fir forest of the Devils Postpile and Reds Meadow Valley got a haircut.

Hundreds and thousands—tens of thousands—of giant, 100-foot-tall-plus trees crashed to the ground, the victim of a once-in-a-century freak windstorm that would later be named, appropriately enough, the Devils Windstorm.

When the clear morning light hit Reds that first day of December 2011, the valley was transformed.
Campgrounds lay completely buried under hundreds of jack-knifed trees piled 20 and 30 feet deep. Uprooted trees, roots as big as houses, towered over tiny bathrooms, crushed bear boxes, and splintered picnic tables.

The road down to Reds was impassible, covered with dozens of trees just in the first few miles, trees that dented the pavement with the force of their weight and fall and destroyed sections of the road.

Trails, including the famous John Muir and the Pacific Crest trail sections that run through Reds Meadow Valley, were covered with trees piled on top of each other tens of feet deep, sometimes with as many as 500 trees in a mile.

It was like a giant’s game of pick-up-sticks, except there’s no giant to pick up the sticks.

Trees can be removed with chainsaws and logging trucks and chippers and backhoes and in every developed area of the valley, that’s what is happening. Although no official will commit to an exact date, the road to the valley and some campgrounds and facilities are expected to be open by July 4.

But what about the places where the law prohibits machines, like the heavily-used PCT and John Muir trails that run through federally designated wilderness areas? And even when chainsaws are not prohibited—or where they are but there has been special permission to use them (as is the situation on a case-by-case basis with oversight of the district ranger in many of the high-use trails in Reds)—you can’t get a backhoe in to haul the trees that have been felled by chainsaws out.

There’s simply no way to get any kind of machine up those trails.

And wet red fir and lodgepole pine are heavy. Very heavy.

One 17-foot-23-inch-diameter tree section weighs just about a ton. There are five such sections on one, 100-foot tall tree—and that’s considered a small tree. Many of the trees that blew down are four and five feet in diameter, many taller than 100 feet, and there are tens of thousands of trees down on the trails.

The sheer weight of what needs to be removed to open the trails defies the imagination.

Although the Inyo National Forest and Devils Postpile National Monument have both received federal funding to help clear the blowdown away from developed areas and trails in Reds (the Inyo is a National Forest funded by the Department of Agriculture; the Postpile is managed by the Department of the Interior and has its own programs underway to remove the trees), the sheer volume of work still to be done will take months, days, even years to complete.

The hard way
On a hot, Monday afternoon along the PCT trail near Upper Soda Springs campground, Inyo National Forest trail crew supervisor Clancy Nelson is moving wood.

Lots of wood.

He’s got a 17-foot, 23-inch-in-diameter lodgepole exactly where he does not want it—in the middle of the trail. It has taken him and a group of volunteers from the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s “Can Do” crew an hour just to make two cuts with a big, hand-powered bucksaw to untangle the log so they can move it off the trail.

That was the easy part. Now for the hard part.

“Grab it there,” he said, pointing one volunteer to the front of the log. A group of volunteers grab giant log grapplers and grab onto the front of the log, one person on each side of the big log.

Another volunteer is assigned to make sure the log rolls on the three little logs used as rollers under the big tree section. Without these rollers, the big section of pine would simply dig into the trail when the crew tries to move it and go nowhere.

“Paul, put the rockbar there, under the middle, to keep it from rolling down the hill,” Nelson said, pointing another person to stand on the downhill side of the tree.

Two more people grab the big grapplers at the other end. Another volunteer grabs another rock bar and stands at the back end of the section, ready to push.

By the time everyone is lined out, there are seven people gathered around the log.

“One, two, three, go,” Nelson said.

Seven people push, pull, lift, hold.

The log moves six inches off the trail.

They do it again. Another six inches. And again. This time, it moves a foot.

This goes on for five minutes.

Finally, the log slides into place exactly where Nelson wants it—on the downhill side of the trail where it will remain for decades as a kind of trail wall.

The crew, which has been at it since early this morning, gets ready to do the same thing all over again with the next section of the tree.

And the next.

It just took seven people more than an hour to cut and move one section of one tree a few feet.

One section of one tree out of tens of thousands.

The Red Zone
Michael Morse is the wilderness and trails supervisor for the North Zone (Mammoth area and north) of the Inyo National Forest.

Twenty years ago this summer, a giant fire swept through the Reds Meadow area, (The ”Rainbow Fire”) dropping hundreds of trees on the trails and burning up just as many. Then, like now, it was his job to make sure the trails stayed open.

He and many of the Inyo National Forest staff have had some practice and it shows.

“We have divided the entire area into three zones,” he said. “The Red Zones are the most heavily impacted areas, trails with hundreds and hundreds of jack strawed trees down per mile. The Yellow Zones might have 60 or so trees per mile and the Green Zones have sporadic trees down.”

The forest has also prioritized the trails by use. Heavily used trails in the Red Zone, for example, are on the high priority list to open; low-use Green Zone trails can wait. He’s ordered in highly trained smoke jumper fire crews to do the most complicated and intricate chainsaw work—places where huge trees are layered two-stories high and jackknifed every which way—and after six weeks, 55 miles of about 155 miles are now open.

“We started in early May as soon as they got the road cleared of trees,” he said. “I know some people think because there’s no snow, Reds should be open by now, but actually, we are about on the same schedule that we would be on if it were a normal snow year and we are ahead of where we would be for a big snow year.”

But that’s not to say this whole thing isn’t one, giant mess.

“It’s impossible to describe the amount of work that still has to be done,” Morse said. When it’s snow that keeps the valley closed, you just wait for it to melt and plow,h he said. This is something else entirely.
“That’s why it is absolutely imperative that we work with as many volunteer groups, as many other groups, as possible.”

As a wilderness manager, mechanized equipment is prohibited in most of Morse’s country and he relies on people who know how to get things done the old-fashioned way—with primitive tools and sweat.
Like the PCTA’s Can Do crew and volunteers like PCTA veteran Paul Cardinet.

Cardinet has been down in Reds for almost two weeks with a group of like-minded volunteers. All of them love this area of the Sierra, and over the past 11 years, they have put in countless hours on the PCT trail sections in Morse’s backyard.

“It’s a lot of work, yes, but it’s also a lot of fun,” Cardinet said. “We can’t think of the big picture, really, we just need to stay on task and get each project done, one at a time. But it’s satisfying, to be able to help, to give back to this place we love so much.”

For more info go to http://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/inyo/blowdown

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