Rangers outfox beavers with higher fotbridges along West Bench Trail
The beavers won the battle, but skiers, snowshoers and summer hikers are the real winners.
After years of battling beavers eagerly doing what they dammed well pleased to block streams and flood bridges in the Mesa Lakes area, the U.S. Forest Service decided on an end-around.
The result is three new footbridges well above the dam line and a much safer winter passage across the spillways of Jumbo, Beaver and Sunset lakes.
“The beavers were allowed to win,” admitted Grand Valley District Ranger Connie Clementson, her sigh audible over the phone. “Each year, we struggled with them building dams around our bridges, and it became a very difficult situation to manage.”
Anyone familiar with the popular West Bench Trail knows the hazards of crossing narrow, ice- and snow-slicked bridges. The rust-colored new bridges, wide enough for skiers to pass and, at nine rails high, sturdy enough to support a whole bunch of snow, will alleviate whatever worries the old bridges might have caused.
Because the bridges are all well above water level, the worries about flat-tailed mammals casting sticks and stones across the trail are now memories of the past.
“Oh, yeah, we worked all the time on those beaver dams,” said Mike Brown, busy last week driving a sign post into the still-unfrozen soil near Beaver Lake.
“And when the bridges would get covered with snow and ice, it could be pretty narrow, and it would be dicey trying to cross,” said Brown, manager of developed recreation areas and snow ranger for the Grand Valley Ranger District.
A new bridge was built at the outlet over Jumbo Reservoir, the first stream crossing that recreationists see after leaving the parking lot on Colorado Highway 65 on their West Bench trips.
The trail curves across the Jumbo dam, wends through the nearby campground and then jogs to the new bridge over the outlet of Beaver Lake.
Brown was installing the signs directing people to that new bridge and away from taking the old route over the beaver-dammed lower bridge.
And there’s a new bridge over the spillway at Sunset Lake, a delicately arched curve that keeps your feet dry while allowing the dam operators (people this time) to carry on maintenance and operations.
Loren Paulson, recreation officer for the Grand Valley Ranger District, said a combination of federal grants and private partnerships made the project happen.
“We spent about $3 million up there in the early 2000s, and the project then was identified in the Mesa Lakes Capital Improvement Project,” he said. “Unfortunately, we ran out of money before we could finish the projects.”
The three bridges were purchased with a $72,000 Fishing is Fun grant from the Division of Wildlife, Paulson said. Trail work by the Western Colorado Conservation Corps also came from that grant.
Mesa County donated time and labor to haul gravel for the trails.
A $65,000 grant from the federal Scenic Byway program paid for the snappy new toilet at the Jumbo Reservoir parking lot.
“That has been needed really for quite a while, especially in the winter,” Paulson said.
Finally, a Forest Service Legacy Grant will be used to create and erect new signs for the trails.
“We used that for the installation of the bridges, which was significant, too,” Paulson said.
Clementson said recreational users will notice the changes right way.
“We wanted to get everything done before winter,” she said. “We’ve really tried to make this a safer experience, every way around, and I think we did that.”