Sarah Hagenbuch: Forest conditions concerning
Land managers face increased wildfire risk, insects and diseases
April 24, 2009
Several issues and influences contribute to the condition of Colorado’s forest resources. Those of primary concern are: trends in forest cover change, insect and disease cycles, expansion of the wildland-urban interface and watershed health. Additional issues include threats to the health of the state’s urban and riparian forests, and implications for Colorado’s air quality based on future forest conditions.
Declining forest health and extended wildfire seasons linked to climate change are pressing issues in Colorado. Additionally, decades of fire suppression have left a legacy of unnaturally dense forests in some areas. This has increased the need to invest in programs that help protect lives, property and vulnerable resources from potentially catastrophic wildfires that result from accumulated fuel build-ups.
Because much of Colorado’s forest lands are old and unmanaged, they are prone to insect and disease epidemics, and wildfires. Although Colorado’s forests are disturbance-driven and naturally should be characterized by diversity in age and size, past decisions have resulted in forests that are homogeneous at a landscape level, making them vulnerable to widespread damage.
Without these disturbances to rejuvenate forest stands and ensure a variety of forest types, ages and densities, many of Colorado’s forests have become overly dense and concentrated in older age classes. This lack of diversity, along with intense competition for resources such as water and light, has left many forest stands vulnerable to insect and disease attack, wildfire and other types of damage at a vast scale.
In recent decades, scientists and land managers have begun to re-emphasize the importance of fire and disturbance in many of Colorado’s forests. But restoring fire as a functioning, natural component of these ecosystems poses several challenges. Tools such as prescribed fire must be used appropriately and with attention to fuel loads and smoke management. Thinning forest stands in advance of prescribed fire often is necessary to restore proper spacing and distribution across the landscape, but thinning small-diameter trees can be expensive and offers little economic return. The rapid growth of homes and other development in the wildland-urban interface poses the additional challenge of trying to manage natural resources while providing for the protection of lives and property.
Management decisions regarding forest health issues necessarily are subjective and require a balance of public and private values. In order to make these decisions in an informed, effective manner, land managers, government leaders and the public must better understand how the interactions between natural and human forces shape our forests and influence their ability to provide a variety of benefits on a sustainable basis.
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Although the challenges Colorado’s forests face may be daunting, they are not insurmountable. They do, however, require consensus and political resolve to fix. Ensuring the continuation of the benefits that our forests provide, and that Coloradoans depend on, is critical to Colorado’s future.