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Forest crew uses explosives in wilderness area

Forest crew uses explosives in wilderness area

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VALLECITO, Colo. - To the residents and visitors of Vallecito Reservoir: That sound you heard from the woods that resembled dynamite wasn't exactly dynamite, but it was close.

The peace and solitude of the Weminuche Wilderness north of Vallecito was interrupted intermittently recently as the U.S. Forest Service and Southwest Conservation Corps cleared avalanche debris from the Vallecito Creek Trail.

Working in wilderness areas can be an arduous task for Forest Service employees charged with maintaining trails. The 1964 federal Wilderness Act prohibits the use of motorized equipment in these areas. That includes vehicles as well as tools like chain saws.

But conspicuously absent from the Wilderness Act is any mention of explosives. That loophole gives the Forest Service a valuable tool to tackle big jobs that require more than a shovel and a handsaw. Clearing the massive pile of timber and debris near the Soda Springs Bridge was just such a job.

"People have been making routes around the debris, which really isn't the idea in a wilderness area," said Dave Baker, recreation coordinator for the Forest Service in Durango.

With the use of chain saws, bulldozers and other heavy equipment prohibited by federal law, the only option left to Baker and his crew of Southwest Conservation Corps workers was to blow up the pile and clear it by hand.

The blasting operation was supervised by Gary Frink, head blaster for the Rio Grande branch of the Forest Service.

Frink and the Conservation Corps workers made the 6`BD-mile hike on Monday accompanied by seven horses loaded with 700 pounds of explosives. The crew planned to spend the week on the trail blasting and removing debris. There are no plans to replace the bridge, which an avalanche wiped out in 2005.

The explosive used is a water and gel cartridge similar to dynamite, but without nitroglycerine, it is more stable, making it easier and safer to work with.

"We're fortunate we have somebody that good that close," Baker said of Frink.

Baker said the debris pile was especially dangerous with the hunting season looming. He said once the debris is removed, the trail will again be passable, although horse and person alike will have to wade across the creek that the bridge used to span.

The decision to finally remove the debris after two years was not an easy one.

"We did it to protect human safety and not necessarily to make it more comfortable," he said. "It is the wilderness, and you should have a wilderness experience."


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