Community Agriculture Alliance: Improving forest resiliency
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It is winter in Colorado, and people are still talking about wildfire. The 2020 fire season was long and intense. The state’s three largest wildfires, Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch, combined to burn over a half-million acres. Forest conditions, such as age and insect and diseases, combined with climactic changes like drought, extreme weather events, higher temperatures, decreased snowpack and early thaw, have dramatically increased the stress on our forests. The snowpack this winter is generally below average in Northwest Colorado so far, so no one could be blamed for being a little anxious about the upcoming fire season.
These are clearly significant challenges, but we are not helpless in the face of these changing conditions. There are three main factors that influence wildfires: weather, terrain and fuels. Fuels in this context mean the trees and other vegetation that make up our forests. We cannot do much about the weather or the terrain, but we can certainly address fuels.
Fuel reduction management approaches often involve salvage operations, which lower the fuel loading in strategic areas of our landscapes. Historic disturbance regimes once naturally reset these forests, allowing new cohorts of young, resilient trees to replace dead or decaying ones. Now, forest managers mimic these disturbances through active forest management treatments. Treated areas promote a younger age class to grow next to an area of older trees, thus creating a mosaic of mixed age classes. This diversity of age classes across the landscape improves the resiliency of the forest against large-scale disturbances. Although some disturbance occurs when managing forests, this impact is minimal compared to the damaging effects of a high intensity wildfire.
Cooperation across private, municipal, state and federal partners allow for forests to be treated and resilience to be improved across ownerships on a scale that can make a difference. The Colorado State Forest Service works with federal partners through the Good Neighbor Agreement to collaboratively approach these landscape level treatments. Multiple ownership projects have taken place across Routt County in the last few years.
Local forest product markets also are a driver of the quantity and scale of fuels treatments. While most harvested trees are still remnants of the mountain pine beetle outbreak of the 2000s, these standing dead trees still hold economic value — but not for much longer. Local processing mills help drive how much of the landscape we can treat before it becomes too costly, while also sequestering carbon into forest products.
Landowners might want to use the winter and early spring months to evaluate their property and plan and prepare for the next fire season. Assumptions can be made as to what the upcoming fire season might look like as the snowpack is similar to what it was in January last year, compounding the effects of drought. Local agencies are great resources for mitigation and planning information to ensure your family is prepared for the upcoming season and beyond. Contact your local Colorado State Forest Service office or visit csfs.colostate.edu for the latest publications on wildfire safety and mitigation.
Drew Langel is with the Colorado State Forest Service in the Steamboat Springs Field Office.
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