Molly Pitts is Rocky Mountain States Director for Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, and is the SE Colorado SAF Chapter Chair. She originally wrote this article for The Timber Line, the publication of Colorado-Wyoming Society of American Foresters.
Recently, the Colorado State Forest Service shared the results of the 2016 Report on the Health of Colorado’s Forests. Not surprisingly, the results were not great. Approximately 834 million trees, or nearly one in every 14 trees, are dead. Although the spruce beetle and mountain pine beetle are native to our forested ecosystems, the reality is that past management of our forests has definitely had an impact on the severity of the outbreaks. A long history of fire suppression, as well as a hands-off approach to active management on large parcels of the landscape, and then drought, provided the perfect conditions of too many over mature trees, thus setting the stage for landscape level epidemics.
So what should be done now? Where feasible, we should be salvaging the dead trees. As the 2016 Beaver Creek fire highlighted, fires that get started in stands impacted by bark beetles are likely to burn hotter, and longer, putting firefighters at higher risk and increasing suppression costs. Additionally, these large fires produce a lot of smoke, impacting the health of residents and the environment as a whole. By quickly salvaging the dead material, carbon can be captured and stored in usable wood products that we all use. As a bonus, this process also creates jobs and strengthens the economic base of many communities around Colorado. Furthermore, salvaging (and active forest management) provides the opportunity for increased species diversity and age class distribution, thus decreasing the risk of future epidemics and wildfire.
Reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires is especially important given the recent research by the University of Colorado Boulder that showed Colorado forests impacted by wildfire are not regenerating as well as expected and in some cases, will be transforming into grasslands and shrublands for many decades. Given the likelihood of warming temperatures and associated drought, and the increasing number of wildfires, I believe the argument for active forest management speaks for itself. We can either actively manage the forests, thus protecting watersheds, habitat, communities and infrastructure, or we can continue to let mother nature manage for us and hope that future generations will still be able to enjoy forests in Colorado.
Finally, in order to get the necessary work done on the ground, congress needs to fix fire funding and pass forest management reform that allows the Forest Service and other land management agencies to do their job. Rather than spending large sums of money on just planning and later defending projects, let’s use that money to actually get work done on the ground. Let’s streamline the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), without sacrificing environmental protection. Rather than just continually throwing money at the problem, let’s fix what is causing the problem!
So what is our role as foresters? I strongly believe it is our responsibility to inform and educate the public about the factors that are causing our forests to be unhealthy. We need to be honest about what past management (or lack thereof) has done to create the current situation. We need to explain that active forest management has an important role in managing our current forests and creating our future forests. As stewards of the land, we need to speak up!