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Fire chief says 10-acre site is high priority for public safety

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FARMINGTON — Visitors to Farmington's Animas Park will notice some changes in the weeks ahead as city workers begin a three-year, 10-acre project designed to reduce the park's fire danger and number of invasive tree species.

City officials announced the project in a Feb. 27 press release. Work on the project is scheduled to begin early this month and conclude in 2022. Its purpose is to reduce the density of hazardous fuels, create access for firefighters and reduce the intensity of any fire that might occur.

Workers will begin by removing such non-native tree species as Russian olive and salt cedar trees from the 10 acres that have been designated for the project. That includes territory adjacent to the Riverside Nature Center south of the Animas River.

After the trees have been removed, the area will be treated with an herbicide approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Pesticide Management to help inhibit the new growth of non-native vegetation.

Workers will apply a second round of the herbicide in 2021, and the project will be completed in 2022 when workers plant native grasses, flowers and trees across the 10 acres, including cottonwood and willow trees. The project is being funded by a grant from the New Mexico Water Trust Board.

David Burke, chief of the Farmington Fire Department, said the 10 acres included in the project are in strong need of mitigation.

"From the public safety side of it, it's a high-priority area," he said. "We'll have better access if there was a problem in there, and this project will accomplish that in a manner not destructive to the park."

Burke said some of the 10 acres being treated have a density of up 400 trees an acre.

"At that density, we just can't get in there and control it if a bad fire was to take place," he said.

A flier accompanying the city's press release states a single Russian olive tree can consume 80 to 120 gallons of water a day. With some acres containing more than 400 trees, city officials say that's enough water to fill the lap pool at the Bisti Bay at Brookside Park water park each day.

Burke said work like this is nothing new, as the city typically takes on a similar project every year. In the past, mitigation work has been done elsewhere in Animas Park, near the Farmington Regional Animal Shelter, at Farmington Lake and at the Among the Waters River Trail.

The work will be performed entirely by hand, Burke said, meaning hikers will not need to be on the lookout for heavy machinery.

"This will be much less significant than if we had heavy equipment in there," he said. "There will be some (trail) closures, but 99 percent of the park won't be impacted by it. It's a very interesting process. We'll be selectively pulling out the invasive species, but it will be very minimal in terms of disruptions to the use cycle of the park."

Native species in the 10 acres will be left in place, city officials said, and they are expected to thrive once their competition for sunlight, space, nutrients and water has been eliminated.

Burke said the follow-up work is just as important as the initial removal of the trees.

"These are very invasive species, so if we don't do appropriate mitigation, they will return," he said.

Burke expects the removal work to be complete within 30 days of its start, meaning it should be well over long before thousands of local residents flock to the area for Riverfest in late May.

The chief asked park visitors to keep an eye out for intermittent closures of trails and to follow signage. Anyone with questions about the project is asked to call Fire Station No. 1 at 505-599-1430 or visit ffdnm.org.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/216TU0e

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