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Forest Service Shuts Down Scenic Railroad's Tree-Cutting Operation

DURANGO, Colo. (CBS4) -- An attempt by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to remove trees considered to be a wildfire risk along a stretch of track was halted by a cease-and-desist order from the United States Forest Service.

This after the Forest Service filed a $25 million lawsuit last year against the railroad for allegedly causing one of the largest wildfires in the state's history.  The federal government claims a cinder from one of the railroad's coal-fired steam locomotives ignited the 416 Fire in June 2018. That blaze burned more than 54,000 acres.

The railroad faces other lawsuits seeking liability for the fire, including one from the insurance company of a nearby ski resort that was forced to close during the fire.

The railroad denies its locomotive caused the fire, but months later committed to converting at least one locomotive to diesel fuel from coal.

Railroad Cease and Desist 1 (credit John Harper, American Heritage Railways, DSNGRR)
(credit: John Harper/American Heritage Railways/DSNGRR)

By the time the Forest Service cease-and-desist order was issued in late May, eight miles of the tree-cutting project had already been completed. Now, however, tree-cutting is at a standstill as the historic locomotives run on a limited schedule and USFS personnel review what has been downed and cleared thus far.

"One of the chief complaints we hear is about fire mitigation," said John Harper, general manager of American Heritage Railways, which owns DSNGRR. "And now we're actively mitigating and people are concerned and upset about it."

A spokesman for the railroad told CBS4 the railroad has been cutting trees along its right of way for years and in fact received an award in 2018 for its efforts. This year's operation was the most aggressive yet, removing brush on its 100-foot right of way on either side of the tracks.

"We're not removing all of the trees, but there are certain areas considered high-hazard areas where we removed a large amount," Harper said. "We've never done something this big. This is a significant mitigation project."

"A project like this costs hundreds of thousands of dollars," Harper added. "No revenue is being made on removing timber. That timber is being removed for fire mitigation and to prevent derailment."

Railroad Cease and Desist 2 (credit John Harper, American Heritage Railways, DSNGRR)
(credit: John Harper/American Heritage Railways/DSNGRR)

However, the Forest Service suggests the project may have impeded National Forest land where the track crosses it and runs adjacent to it.

"Members of the public and Forest Service resource specialists have raised a number of concerns about ... clearing activities currently being conducted along the railroad right-of-way," San Juan National Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick wrote in the order, according to the Durango Herald, which obtained a copy.

Chadwick noted that "not all of the work completed to date is reasonable and necessary to address wildfire concerns." In fact, due to slash piles left in its wake north of the Cascade station, the operation may have left the area "arguably more susceptible to ignition and the spread of wildfire than it was before the work started."

"I understand that there is a plan to deal with the slash and debris left behind eventually, but given the extreme drought conditions ... I am concerned about the new risks that exist in that area," she said.

Harper said the railroad hopes to resume cutting and clearing trees in July.

Railroad Cease and Desist 3 (credit John Harper, American Heritage Railways, DSNGRR)
(credit/ John Harper/American Heritage Railways/DSNGRR)

In a statement provided to CBS4, Jeff Johnson, the general manager of DSNGRR, said "The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has used contractors in the past for mitigation efforts. Currently, we are having ongoing communications with U.S. Forest Service representatives to clarify our mitigation strategies and activities."

During the summer, the railroad is a popular attraction that hauls passengers 45 miles through canyons along the Animas River. The tracks were laid in the early 1880s when mining was the predominant industry in the area. The train played a large role in the establishment of both Durango and Silverton, according to the DSNGRR website.


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