Black Forest Tree Removal on Hold

By MATT STEINER, Colorado Springs Gazette | January 31, 2014

Like the blackened, burned trees that cover El Paso County land in Black Forest, the debate over who will remove those hazards left by the 2013 fire still stands without resolution.

The El Paso County Commission has toiled since November to hammer out and approve contracts for management and labor on the project that would eliminate an estimated 9,500 hazard trees from the sides of roads and county parks.

True North Emergency Management of Texas won a bid in November to monitor, evaluate and manage the hazard tree removal, and Florida-based Ceres Environmental Service Inc. was slated to do the labor. Ceres has agreed to use local subcontractors for at least 85 percent of the work.

El Paso County agencies have worked out some proposals and received approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a little more than $1 million in assistance. The FEMA money covers 75 percent of the project, while the county would be responsible for the rest, not to exceed $336,393.

That roughly $1.3 million price tag is reduced from the original tally of slightly more than $2 million. Among the proposed changes is the exclusion of potential tree removal in 30-foot-wide easements on private property.

“This option gives us the best value for the dollar,” said Max Kirschbaum, operations manager of the county’s public services department.

Black Forest residents Robb Willes and Judy von Ahlefeldt have been vocal throughout the contract process.

While von Ahlefeldt advocated recently for scrapping the FEMA involvement, Willes said he “absolutely believes it’s important” to seek assistance.

Willes said he’s concerned about leaving 30-foot easements from roadways untouched. He said 100-foot-tall, charred trees could eventually topple, potentially leaving some county streets impassable.

County administrator Jeff Greene said the FEMA application process would have to begin from square one if major changes are made to the current plans. The county could potentially lose FEMA assistance for the project, he said.

“It’s a gamble. It’s a big gamble,” said county budget officer Nicola Sapp, noting that under the FEMA agreement, the project needs to be completed by July 26.

Sapp said the easements on private property could become another FEMA-funded project at a later date.

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