Pat Mercer began as Leadville District Ranger in January 2020, just a few months before COVID-19 sparked a surge in outdoor visitation for Lake County. Last summer also saw three of the largest forest fires ever recorded in Colorado, although none occurred in Mercer’s jurisdiction.
“It was an interesting time to start in this role,” said Mercer. “In a lot of ways, I’m still trying to get settled. So much of what this job entails has changed over the last year.”
Before coming to Leadville, Mercer served a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. He worked within unique habitats there, surveying and writing reports on species like the spotted owl.
From there, Mercer went to Ohio, where he helped revise a forest resource management plan for Wayne National Forest.
Meanwhile, Mercer was periodically called to assist with forest fires in California and Colorado. Often times, Mercer explained, USFS will pool its employees from around the country in places where wildfires are particularly bad.
“I’ve seen both sides,” said Mercer, who has fought forest fires, as well as developed plans to prevent them.
Two notable fuels mitigation projects have been underway in Lake County since Mercer stepped into the role as Leadville’s district ranger. Both are intended to minimize the impact of forest fires, should they occur.
The Tennessee Creek Project near Turquoise Lake began before Mercer’s tenure, but will continue until 2023. As of February, the Maid of Erin and East Turquoise portions of the Tennessee Creek Project are complete. Both entailed mechanical tree removal and pile burning.
Mercer said the next phase of the project, which includes land adjacent to the Printer Boy and Belle of Colorado campgrounds, will begin as early as September. Treatment will also consist of mechanical tree removal and pile burning. Progress will then continue around the north side of Turquoise Lake until completion.
A separate fuels mitigation effort for Twin Lakes is also in the works, and will likely begin next summer. The project, which identified about 4,000 acres of overgrown forest in need of treatment, will employ similar tactics to those being used in the Tennessee Creek Project.
Planning for the Twin Lakes project will continue into the fall, and the Leadville Ranger District is currently seeking public input regarding the project.
In addition to wildfire prevention, Mercer said several initiatives are underway to accommodate Lake County’s increasingly high number of visitors.
“Last summer, we identified pinch points where certain recreation areas couldn’t handle the number of people that were there,” said Mercer. “The potential for visitation has grown exponentially and we want to make sure these areas are safe and comfortable.”
Such pinch points include the Halfmoon Creek Campgrounds and some trailheads around Lake County.
Mercer said crews will start widening trails and parking lots and adding sites to campgrounds this summer thanks to funds from the Great American Outdoors Act, which provides funding for recreation maintenance.
Mercer is also interested in creating a system to leverage the efforts of volunteer organizations as forest projects continue into the summer.
“We already have so many groups who help out with forest upkeep and data gathering,” said Mercer. “We’d like to formally get them on board and encourage stewardship in managing this land of over 300,000 acres.”