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Report focuses on fixing the forests

Bob Berwyn

A devastating combination of past poor management practices, drought and insect infestations is turning many of Colorado’s forests into disaster zones, a new report concludes.Released in late January, the 22-page document was compiled by the Colorado Forestry Advisory Board, which was assembled to assess forest health and report to the public. Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone serves on the board as the local government representative, and he’s determined to get the word out. The report was recently presented to state lawmakers and will be posted on the Department of Natural Resources Web site.The advisory board appears to reflect a growing consensus that some sort of management activities are needed to try to return forested areas to some something resembling more natural conditions. Those activities include thinning and logging, as well as the re-introduction of fire into the ecosystems where it belongs.&quotThe public has a right to know, needs to know the condition of our forests while we still have a chance to save them,&quot Stone says. &quotThey may look fine driving by, but the state of our forests is deplorable. I believe that we are now as a country guilty of gross negligence.&quotThe forest health report describes the problems in sobering detail. Land management policies during the past 150 years have &quotdisrupted natural cycles of disturbance and renewal,&quot leading to current forest health problems. Human actions that have affected the forests include clear-cutting by early settlers and miners and subsequent decades of fire suppression. As a result, many areas consist of dense, even-age stands of trees that are susceptible to fire and insect infestation.And hundreds of thousands of acres millions of trees are being devoured by all sorts of bugs. In Eagle County alone, some 10,000 acres of forest have been affected by mountain pine beetles. Perhaps even more ominous, 39,000 acres of the high country’s signature subalpine fir groves are also affected by insect infestation. In the southwestern corner of the state, another beetle infestation may already have killed up to one-half of the area’s pinyon pines, weakened by drought.The thrust of the report is to help citizens understand how the interactions between human and natural forces shape the forests, and how informed citizens can improve the decision-making process for forest management.&quotWe need a long-term stewardship approach,&quot Stone says. &quotHow do we make out communities less prone to catastrophic fires? I want to do whatever I can to prevent seeing a graveyard of trees. This is not a one-year or a 10-year fix. It’s 30 years. We need to be looking at those time frames.&quotAnd based on some hard-earned experience from last summer’s blazes, Stone says land managers need to be thinking about treating larger landscape areas. A 500-acre patch of thinned forest probably won’t do much to slow down a significant wildfire, so forest managers need to be thinking about treating 10,000 to 15,000 acres.Of course, nobody believes that we have the resources to manage the millions of acres of far-flung forest that could benefit from some sort of intervention. But there is an emerging consensus that something needs to be done sooner rather than later when it comes to the so-called Red Zone the wildland-urban interface where wildfires are feared most.That means tackling the &quotintermix&quot zones identified by the recently revised White River National Forest plan. And that process is already under way, coordinated by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG). Some fuel mitigation work will likely occur in those area as soon as this summer, Stone says. The forest plan identified intermix management zones around Vail, between Breckenridge and Frisco and in the Aspen area.&quotThe forest plan identified areas to develop multi-jurisdictional approaches for management,&quot says NWCCOG director Gary Severson. &quotFire doesn’t respect political boundaries, so we’re trying to work at fuels reduction in one concentrated effort. If we manage to get buy-in from everyone early in the process, it should go more smoothly.”&quotThe advisory board feels it’s important that the public recognize that our forests are not as healthy as they appear,&quot says Doug Robotham, director of the Trust for Public Land Colorado. Robotham, representing the environmental community on the panel, calls for a sustainable grassroots stewardship effort and emphasized that any forest health management strategies should include a land preservation component.An important part of that stewardship effort is the current thrust to establish a meaningful monitoring effort, using scientific sampling techniques to gather baseline data and to record changing conditions into the future. That information could help future generations make good management decisions, Robotham says.&quotIt’s also important for the public to appreciate the fact that acknowledging that we have forest health problems does not equate to having some sort of agenda for clear-cutting,&quot Robotham says. &quotWe owe it to future generations to arm ourselves with the best knowledge we have, and to do our best, with limited resources, to practice good stewardship”The Advisory board includes seven members, selected to represent a wide range of interests. Other members are: Don Ament, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture; Tom Borden, private landowner; Nancy Fishering (chairwoman), Colorado Timber Industry Association; Greg Walcher, Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources; and Al Yates, President, Colorado State University.


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