Community Agriculture Alliance: Understanding forest health on private lands

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — With the three largest wildfires in state history on the record in 2020, forest health has jumped to the forefront of our natural resource concerns. But what makes a healthy forest?

Forests are dynamic, multi-functioning ecosystems that support a variety of species and processes. Forests, like all ecosystems, experience natural disturbance regimes, such as pests (like the mountain pine beetle), blow down events or wildfire. Human interaction and manipulation of the landscape has, in many instances, disrupted these natural processes in ways that we are still coming to understand. In some cases, it may be best to allow forests to return to their natural regime. In others, where there is human influence and/or specific management strategies, such as the wildland urban interface (WUI), continued management is needed to ensure compatibility between urban and wildland systems.

Forest health is complex but can be grouped into three main elements. The first of these is forest structure. The appropriate forest structure will depend on location, precipitation and forest type. Regardless of forest type, an appropriate balance of trees, openings and tree species diversity is crucial. The second component necessary for complex, functioning forest ecosystems is a robust and diverse understory.

Again, this is strongly influenced by forest type, but a vigorous understory will provide benefit to wildlife and pollinators as well as contributing to healthy soils and noxious weed abatement. The final consideration when discussing forest health is age class diversity. Having a forest with a variety of different age classes that are distributed in an appropriate way for the forest type makes the entire forest more resilient. Dead and dying trees are also an important component to the forest ecosystem as they provide excellent habitat for wildlife and slowly cycle nutrients back into the systems in their decay. Healthy and resilient forests are the culmination of these variables, which can reduce the chances of damage from pests and moisture stress, reduce catastrophic fire risk, improve wildlife and pollinator habitat, improve water quality and quantity, increase carbon storage and restore natural plant communities.

Improving forest health in heavily managed areas, such as WUIs, is important and often challenging. Community involvement in mitigation efforts is more important than ever. At this year’s Routt County Wildfire Mitigation Conference, we will have local and regional experts present on steps that we all can take — from the individual homeowner to our community stakeholders — to mitigate risks and be prepared in the event of a wildfire. This community event will take place virtually beginning April 29 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. and running every Thursday evening through May. Visit for more information.

For more information on how the NRCS can assist with forest management on private lands, contact Clinton Whitten or Baili Foster at 970-879-3225.

Baili Foster is a soil conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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