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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

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Water Education Colorado

Fire Away: Why watershed groups are focusing on forest recovery and fire risk-reduction

By Abigail Eagye

In the summer of 2002, the Hayman Fire burned across nearly 140,000 acres, securing legendary status as the largest fire in Colorado’s history. It took nearly a month to control the fire, and 132 homes were lost in the blaze.

Hayman’s indirect effects are still being measured, as government agencies, public utilities, nonprofits and private landowners continue efforts to repair the landscape. Denuded hillsides require extensive replanting to combat ongoing erosion into critical watersheds. And while the forest slowly regenerates, massive amounts of sediment continue sliding into waterways, upsetting the balance of river-dependent ecosystems and choking some of the state’s major water supply reservoirs.

State and federal agencies, naturally, have a hand in the cleanup, but they are limited by geographical and topical jurisdictions. Hayman burned across four counties, three U.S. Forest Service ranger districts, three Colorado State Forest Service ranger districts and three different conservation districts, making the coordination of restoration efforts a veritable nightmare.

Watershed groups however, have stepped up to organize across such geopolitical boundaries. Unrestrained by ecologically arbitrary delineations, they work throughout entire watersheds and have played pivotal leadership roles in the rehabilitation that follows devastating fires like Hayman—and in efforts to prevent future catastrophic fires—for the sake of their watersheds.

Recovering from Hayman
In 1996, the Buffalo Creek Fire burned in the same general area as Hayman would six years later—and across some of the same jurisdictional boundaries. Although a mere infant by comparison, it still burned nearly 12,000 acres, more than twice the size of the Vail ski resort, precipitating its own catastrophic effects on the landscape.

The Coalition for the Upper South Platte formed in response. It could be considered a stroke of luck, then, that the earlier fire had spawned an organization that was already working with some of the affected jurisdictions when Hayman broke out. CUSP helped spearhead Hayman relief efforts even as the fire was still burning, and it’s been a leader in rehabilitation efforts that continue today.

Without such efforts in the Buffalo Creek and Hayman burn areas, it could take hundreds of years for a forest to grow back, says CUSP’s executive director Carol Ekarius. Both fires burned in lower-elevation ponderosa pine forests, which don’t regenerate as quickly as higher-elevation lodgepole pine forests, so replanting is vital. For the upper South Platte watershed, which drains to the Denver Metro area, it’s a matter of protecting water supplies for millions of people.

“Eighty-five percent of the population of Colorado gets at least a portion of its water from this watershed,” Ekarius says. Yet “Joe Q. Citizen has no clue” how much Hayman and the more easily forgotten fires are still affecting water quality, says Ekarius, emphasizing the dire need for public education on the connection between forests and water supplies.

That’s not to say no one has gotten the message and taken up the cause. In the first year after the Hayman Fire, CUSP coordinated 40,000 volunteer hours to help with rehabilitation. In the second year, it racked up another 20,000 hours, and it still accumulates roughly 10,000 volunteer hours annually as restoration efforts continue eight years after the fire.

In addition to continuous replanting, Ekarius’ group is also working to determine how much sediment has built up in the watershed as rain washes away unvegetated slopes. “It’s massive, huge amounts of sediment that have moved into the system,” she says. “The post-fire flooding is inconceivable.”

Denver Water has partnered extensively with CUSP in rehabilitative efforts geared toward reducing sediment-loading of waterways and ultimately, water storage reservoirs. Two of its reservoirs, Strontia Springs and Cheesman, were seriously impacted by the Hayman and Buffalo Creek fires, and in the years since, the water provider has spent $900,000 building two sediment traps on creeks upstream of the reservoirs. According to Don Kennedy, an environmental scientist with Denver Water, it costs roughly $350,000 to “muck out” the two traps, which has already been necessary three times since the first trap was installed six years ago.

And the bucks don’t stop there. Kennedy says Denver Water has spent $10 million on fire-related recovery, including re-establishing roads and treating water. “And we’re going to spend tens of millions of dollars on removing sediment from Strontia Springs.”

Such extensive costs in the fires’ aftermath have led Denver Water to get involved in proactive efforts to reduce the threat of large-scale wildfires. Says Kennedy, “It’s much more effective to treat the landscape to keep the forest healthy up front than to deal with the sediment problem post-fire.”

CUSP and a handful of other watershed groups are also working hard to return Colorado’s forests as closely as possible to pre-European settlement conditions—before absolute fire suppression led to today’s unnaturally high fuel loads. The goal is not to completely prevent fires, Ekarius says, but simply to prevent them on the catastrophic scale of Hayman, or even Buffalo Creek, which, although smaller, was still unnatural in the heat it generated, the scar that it left on the land and the sediment that now clogs the waterways.

Prevention, a harder sell
Hayman’s direct costs—including suppression and loss of property and infrastructure—are estimated at $136 million. And post-fire rehabilitation costs have neared $40 million, according to a 2009 report by the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition.

Despite such dramatic post-fire costs, funding for prevention remains a hard sell. “Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of funding out there for preventive restoration projects,” says Pam Motley, the education and outreach coordinator for the Uncompahgre Plateau Project in western Colorado. To compensate, groups like Motley’s are looking for innovative ways for forest-thinning to pay for itself.

In order to emulate that “pre-European” reference condition, forest managers use prescribed burns to restore a patchy mosaic landscape to ponderosa pine forests and to reduce ladder fuels—the vegetation that allows a fire to climb from the forest floor to its canopy. They also use manual thinning to remove smaller trees from dense forest stands. In the past, most of the trees being thinned were too small in diameter to have commercial value, so such preventive treatments were all cost with no return. But with recent interest in biomass as a source of energy, trees that were once “useless” may now have value.

In the Uncompahgre Plateau, Motley says their first step is taking inventory on how much biomass exists and how much needs to be removed. Then they’ll estimate how much energy—and cash flow—could be generated to offset the cost of removing the trees.

Down in south central Colorado near Trinidad, the Culebra Range Community Coalition has sought other uses for the felled trees, also hoping to recoup the costs of thinning, says Tom Perry, president of the coalition. The coalition succeeded in convincing a post and pole plant in Wyoming to relocate to the Raton area. Now, using timber for projects like fencing, the plant makes good use of the small-diameter trees. Perry’s group also tried to court several pellet plants to relocate to the area but couldn’t compete with Summit and Grand counties, areas that have been more heavily affected by mountain pine beetles and are glutted with dead trees.

Perry and the coalition are also taking a more piecemeal approach to the bigger problem: encouraging private landowners to treat their own properties. Treating public lands may prove useless if adjacent private lands are still overgrown. “We really preached right from the beginning that fire knows no boundaries,” he says, “so if you can get a neighbor to do forest thinning and historic restoration… it really creates a safe boundary.”

Getting private landowners to support forest treatments has demanded education and outreach—and more funds that aren’t directly targeted at thinning trees. But according to Perry, it’s money well spent. A number of ranch owners in the 18,000-acre Santa Fe Trails Ranch, a huge development of 35-acre parcels near Trinidad, recently banded together to share costs associated with thinning trees on their properties. Changing perceptions was crucial to getting those landowners on board.

Reaching out about forest health
Before taking his position with the coalition, Perry saw firsthand how simple misperceptions can have devastating effects. Perry had managed a ranch near the Santa Fe Trails development that was owned by a wealthy Boston family. The family was environmentally conscious and wanted to take the right steps, but whenever Perry spoke about overgrown forests and heavy fuel loads, they didn’t get it. “They thought forests were supposed to be like these East Coast forests that were thick and full,” he says.

Perry had to change that image to convince them to begin thinning trees. In 2001, he organized a three-day forest health workshop that was well-attended not only by local ranch owners but also by a number of the East Coasters. “We had a lot of discussions, and all of a sudden, you could see some of the lights go on,” he says. The landowners began to recognize that there wasn’t enough moisture for fire suppression on their property. “They were starting to see that we were making more trees compete for what little water there is.”

The coalition has now made education one of its main priorities—not only educating people on the need for forest treatments, but also hosting workshops on issues like economic development in rural areas so that projects like the post and pole plant that drive forest treatments will continue to sprout up.
In the Uncompahgre, Motley agrees that education is key. On that front, she says Hayman served an invaluable purpose, despite its devastation: It got people behind the idea of thinning trees. “People are more comfortable now with the idea and need to get in and cut trees,” she says, and funding won’t come without that understanding. So education is a critical part of the Uncompahgre Plateau Project’s goals as well.

One of the Uncompahgre group’s success stories is bringing the timber industry and local environmentalists, who initially opposed cutting trees, together. After forest ecology experts with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, working through Colorado State University, helped design a demonstration project to compare the area to pre-European conditions, the environmentalists began to see that “not only is it okay to do treatments in these forest types, but it’s actually needed,” says Motley.
The demonstration project is also significant for evaluating the outcomes of forest treatments, says Motley. By running transects to establish current conditions and comparing those to pre-European conditions, the Uncompahgre Plateau Project can set specific goals and gauge whether treatments are achieving those goals. That, she says, means constantly going back and asking, “Did we get our desired effects?”

It’s an important question with so much money on the line. Ekarius says the cost for CUSP to treat non-governmental lands for fire-prevention ranges from $800 to $2,000 an acre—as much as five times what it costs the Forest Service, which doesn’t have to contend with so many people, structures or power lines and can also employ economies of scale.

CUSP and the Forest Service actually work extensively together, along with the Jefferson and Teller/Park conservation districts, partly in order to find a common vision of what needs to be done. Additionally, the Colorado State Forest Service recently received a $10 million federal stimulus grant, of which it passed $1.18 million along to CUSP to do work on non-federal lands in Douglas, El Paso, Jefferson, Park and Teller counties. Specifically, the money will be used for developing and implementing community wildfire protection plans in subdivisions, as well as in several county open space areas. CUSP also assembled an advisory leadership team to further distribute the funds by awarding “mini-grants” for projects such as safeguarding infrastructure by creating fuel breaks.

With fuel loading at historically high levels, Ekarius says it’s not inconceivable to see a dozen more Hayman-scale fires impact the populous Front Range. And with roughly 1.5 million acres spread over 10 Front Range counties, it’s simply impossible to treat it all. Which is why prioritizing strategic areas for treatment is important, says Ekarius. And why she and her counterparts have their work literally cut out for them as they wage this forest-based war to protect our water.

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