By Lindsay Seventko, American Forests

View from Highway 149
View from Highway 149. Credit: David via Flickr.

The Silver Thread Scenic Byway runs through dense forests of towering spruce right in the heart of a wildlife corridor that connects several national parks in the Rocky Mountains. Passing high alpine waterfalls, crossing rushing mountain rivers and winding past scenic vistas, the highway once known as “The Green Tunnel” journeys through several historic mining towns that are the perfect jumping-off point for outdoor adventure seekers. But, in recent years, a rampant spruce beetle epidemic and devastating wildfire have threatened both the wildland habitat and the rural towns.

In 2010, spruce beetles laid siege to the forest, destroying nearly all of the spruce trees that measured more than three inches in diameter. Three years later, several wildfires ravaged more than 100,000 acres nearby.

Now, the Silver Thread Scenic Byway would better be described as the gray tunnel, as tens of thousands of acres of dead forest greet you on the drive through the mountains. This loss of habitat, while concerning for aesthetic purposes, may also have much more serious consequences than the loss of a scenic view.

The threatened Canada lynx, moose and wintering elk herds may decrease in numbers without this essential wildlife corridor connecting their habitats. Furthermore, the highway is the only main road through the town of Lake City, Colo. raising concerns that another large wildfire may trap the townspeople without an evacuation route with devastating consequences. Even if another wildfire doesn’t strike the town, the graying of the forests may spell disaster for Lake City’s outdoor tourism-based economy.

To address these growing concerns, American Forests partnered with the U.S. Forest Service last spring to restore a portion of the scenic area to its former green glory. First, 438 acres of dead timber were removed and a fuel break was put in along the scenic byway to help protect the town of Lake City from the threat of future wildfires. A group of volunteers from the town then gathered at a kick-off planting to reforest the formerly dead areas with Engelmann spruce saplings, which are native to the area and also the favored habitat of the lynx and moose. After the initial symbolic planting, the remainder of 100 acres were replanted.  The U.S. Forest Service plans to replant an additional 250 acres in 2017.

Since the restored areas are highly visible from the Silver Thread Scenic Byway and several trails crisscross near the planting site, recreationists will have plenty of opportunities to witness and enjoy the effects of the reforestation. As the trees mature over the coming years, the highway may once again be framed by towering, lush green spruce, the lynx, moose and elk will enjoy more habitat to roam throughout the wildlife corridor and the community of Lake City can be more secure in its physical and economic wellbeing.