Report: Drought places Colorado’s forests, communities in jeopardy

Steamboat Pilot & Today
Drought conditions in 2021 resulted in a low snowpack in spring and less snowmelt than normal in forests across much of Colorado. A new report from the Colorado State Forest Health Service details a number of factors that are plaguing state forests.
National Water and Climate Center, Natural Resources Conservation Service

The Colorado State Forest Service published its annual forest health report this week, highlighting the current conditions of state forests and how the agency is improving their health despite persistent drought and historic wildfires.

The report shows how years of dry conditions have stressed forests across the state, creating ideal conditions for insect outbreaks and large wildfires that threaten Colorado’s communities, water supplies and the many benefits forests provide.

The report emphasizes the need to reduce wildfire fuels through forest management and prepare more communities for inevitable wildfires.

“This is a unique moment for Colorado’s forests,” said Matt McCombs, state forester and director of the CSFS, in a statement. “Drought continues to spur insect activity in our forests and increase the potential for more record-setting fires like those we’ve seen the last two years, whether that’s acres burned or structures lost.

“In this report, we look at the trends driving these forest health challenges and what the Colorado State Forest Service is doing to protect our forests and help communities adapt to a new normal for wildfire.”

Some of the key takeaways include:

• Persistent Drought — Dry conditions threaten more than just water supplies, outdoor recreation and farming and ranching. Drought in Colorado is placing our forests and the many benefits they provide — from clean air and water to carbon sequestration to wildlife habitat ± in greater jeopardy.

Ongoing drought in Colorado is harming the state’s forests, leaving trees susceptible to insect outbreaks and increasing the risk of large-scale wildfires.

• Insects and Disease — Warm temperatures and dry conditions in Colorado last year resulted in trees around the state further declining in health and becoming more susceptible to attack from deadly bark beetles.

Spurred by drought, spruce beetle remains the most deadly forest pest in Colorado, affecting roughly 53,400 acres of forests statewide in 2021.

• Living with Wildfire — Colorado is grappling with post-fire mudslides, flooding and charred mountainsides after historic wildfires in 2020 and the most destructive wildfire in state history in terms of insured losses in 2021.

The report says state leaders must continue to heed the wake-up call from these fires by reducing wildfire fuels and preparing communities for fire.

• Grant Program — State leaders are making key investments in the health of Colorado’s forests with funding that helps communities lower their wildfire risk.

Work completed with support from the CSFS’ Forest Restoration and Wildfire Risk Mitigation grant program helped firefighters save the Shambhala Mountain Center during the Cameron Peak Fire in October of 2020.

The report also noted some regional highlights.

In northeast Colorado, for example, the CSFS managed a project in the Larkspur area of Douglas County that removed 4 million pounds of dead timber, which went to local outlets to produce a Colorado wood product.

Additionally, the CSFS is helping Cuchara in southeast Colorado make big strides in fire protection with seven projects that lower the town’s wildfire risk and establish a safe evacuation route.

In other areas, the CSFS completed the agency’s largest timber sale through the Good Neighbor Authority program on more than 3,500 acres between Gunnison and Montrose, and the CSFS completed a mile-long mitigation project near Breckenridge Ski Resort that protects residents from wildfire and supports the local forest products industry.

Each year, the forest health report provides information to the Colorado General Assembly and residents of Colorado about the health and condition of forests across the state.

Information for the report comes from an annual aerial forest health survey by the CSFS and U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region, as well as field inspections, CSFS contacts with forest landowners and special surveys.

Copies of the 2021 report will be available at all CSFS field offices. A PDF of the report and interactive maps of insect and disease activity are available at

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