Though she is 87-years-old and less than 5-feet tall, Ruth Ann Steele works hard to prevent fires in Black Forest Colorado.
For the past 20 years Steele has spent thousands of hours educating Black Forest landowners about the dangers of wildfire.
In 1994, Steele developed the Black Forest Slash and Mulch, a program designed to help forest landowners clear their land of fire dangers and provide them with useful mulch. Beginning in May and running through September, landowners bring in slash — pine needles, branches and dead trees — to section 16 in the Black Forest. There the debris is ground up for free and turned into free mulch that area residents can pick up from June through September. In the past 20 years Steele estimates that they have processed over 900,000 cubic yards of slash.
Steele’s enthusiasm for life and preserving the land is infectious — so infectious that she helps encourage hundreds of volunteers a year to give up sunny summer days to turn that forest debris into mulch.
“Ruth Ann is a woman who makes things happen,” said John Bradshaw, a Black Forest landowner. “She has better people skills than anyone I have ever met and she is a great organizer and promoter. If it weren’t for her, this program wouldn’t exist. She took an idea and turned it into something that serves a whole community and the areas surrounding it.”
Steele, a former teacher in the Cherry Creek School district, and her late husband James, bought land in the Black Forest in 1966 and moved there in 1979. The couple immediately fell in love with the land and wanted to make sure that they took good care of it. Steele joined the Colorado Forestry Association so that she could learn about the forest. In 1993 she realized that something needed to be done to educate landowners in the Black Forest about wildfire mitigation.
“We didn’t have any funding, but I along with the Colorado Forestry Association, wanted to do something to protect the forest, so we divided the area into 10 sections and surveyed residents about what we should do,” Steele said.
At the same time, John Fisher, director of El Paso County Solid Waste Management was looking for someone in the Black Forest to start a wildfire prevention program. Fisher learned about Steele’s enthusiasm and helped provide funding and resources to start the slash and mulch program.
Since then, the Black Forest Slash and Mulch has helped landowners remove hundreds of thousands of tons of potential wildfire fuel. In its first season, the program converted 5,000 loads of debris into mulch. In 2002 during the Hayman Fire in Colorado, the program made mulch from 18,000 loads.
Steele was not only instrumental in developing the slash and mulch program, her dedication to the cause continues. Though she hopes to retire from most her slash and mulch duties one of these days, she continues to play a big part in the organization. For years she organized events, called volunteers, wrote grant applications, answered questions, volunteered at the slash site, and developed a yearly annual event complete with information booths, equipment demonstrations, giveaways, and a community skit to encourage participation in the program. She has also written and acquired dozens of information sheets to help residents deal with common forest problems such as mountain pine beetles, dwarf mistletoe and porcupines.
For more information about the Black Forest Slash and Mulch call, please call (719) 495-3107 or visit www.BFSlash.org. ❖
“She took an idea and turned it into something that serves a whole community and the areas surrounding it.”