Forest health projects make communities resilient to wildfire

fm AspenStandK. Reid Armstrong, U.S. Forest Service. Why did you cut trees that were green and healthy? Why did you cut so many trees in this one area? What about the animals that are living in the forest? Why was so much woody debris left behind on the forest floor? When will you burn those piles?

These are the questions that I help answer every day working as a community liaison for the U.S. Forest Service’s Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. Forest health is an important part the U.S. Forest Service’s mission “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”

It is important to understand that humans have been altering the landscape around them for as long as they have been on this earth. Look at historic photos of the Front Range and you will see that there were far fewer trees in these hills than there are today, due in part to fires, both natural and human caused.

Fire is an important and natural part of the ecosystem. However, as more houses have been built in the foothills, it has become difficult to allow fire to continue to play its role in maintaining a healthy forest. The result has been forests that are unnaturally overcrowded with trees. Additionally there is a lack of natural diversity across the landscape. Many of the trees on the landscape are a similar age and size. Certain tree species have begun to dominate while other species are being crowded out.

The Forest Service is working to help our National Forests grow more resilient to climate change, drought, disease and insect infestations by cultivating a greater diversity of trees across the landscape, from the species to the ages and size of the trees within a highly populated environment. We use a variety of treatments, ranging from thinning to clearcuts, in order to mimic natural processes, such as fire, which have been excluded from the landscape.

Across the Front Range, important habitats such as meadows, aspen groves, and ponderosa pine have been significantly reduced because of the exclusion of fire. The work we have been doing helps provide more of this diversity across the landscape.

In some areas the Forest Service thins out stands, removing trees (even large, healthy green trees) that are prevalent on the landscape in favor of trees that are not as common. Some thinning projects favor species such as ponderosa pine and aspen, which are more resilient to fire and drought.

In other areas, particularly where the shallow-rooted lodgepole pine is predominant, an entire area might be opened to allow a new, young forest to regenerate in the absence of fire.

Aspen stands and open meadows are encouraged to provide important wildlife habitat and to further diversify the landscape and make it more resilient to wildfire.

Where cutting occurs, the wood sometimes is removed and utilized in products such as construction lumber, fencing, landscaping materials, biofuels, and paper. In areas where the wood may not have market value or feasibly cannot be removed, the smaller branches and logs are piled to burn while the larger material is bucked and scattered.

It takes several years for piles to cure before they can be burned. Pile burning occurs when there is adequate snow cover on the ground and the air quality and winds allow for good smoke dispersal. Pile burns can act as mini fires, providing the same positive benefits as natural fires to the soil and seeds beneath.

While the immediate result of a patch cut or clear cut isn’t attractive in terms of what we’d do in our own backyards, these areas quickly regenerate into open meadows with grasses and wildflowers. Birds and small mammals love this type of habitat. Woody debris on the ground returns nutrients to the soil and creates hiding places for little voles and mice, which attracts birds of prey to the standing tree snags left behind.

Deer and elk enjoy these opened and thinned areas for browsing and places to bed down. Their predators also take advantage of this improved habitat for hunting. Within a few years, new seedlings begin to grow, the first signs of the forest that the next generation of people living here will enjoy.

The Forest Service will continue to wrestle with the challenges presented by working in the complex intermix of private and public lands along Colorado’s Front Range. We encourage our community to stay engaged with us, providing comments and collaboration as we work together to make our forests more healthy and resilient now and for future generations.

The Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest has more than 500 acres of forest health projects planned in Boulder, Gilpin, and Clear Creek Counties this year. A list of upcoming projects and more information can be found at www.fs.usda.gov/goto/arp/brdfuels.

To receive updates about U.S. Forest Service projects in the Boulder, Gilpin and Clear Creek counties, email krarmstrong@fs.fed.us.

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