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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.

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Water Education Colorado

A Good Intention Gone Wrong

By Jayla Ryan Poppleton

Decades of Fire Suppression

History has no shortage of examples in which humans attempted to alter the flux of nature and later realized the error. The exclusion of fire from fire-adapted ecosystems is another case of good intentions gone wrong.

Of course fires burned, but beginning in 1910 and continuing for more than a half century, the U.S. Forest Service promoted their immediate suppression. Our forests have grown dense and fuel-laden as a result, and are now more likely to burn hotter, longer and across larger areas than ever before.

The mountain pine beetle is literally adding more fuel to the fire. Now that the beetle has killed 90 percent of Colorado's lodgepole pines, forest managers, water managers and lawmakers alike are increasingly concerned about the tremendous fire hazard resulting from so many dead trees.

The danger to human life, infrastructure, and forested watersheds is not lost on anyone who reads between the lines. The question now is: How do we get ahead of this and prevent another catastrophic forest fire?

Treating hazardous fuels by taking down dead trees, mechanically thinning overgrown forests to reduce density, and applying small, controlled burns called prescribed fires to treat surface fuels are foresters' primary tools. Though foresters have recognized fire's integral role within Colorado's natural environment for decades, the emphasis that has been placed on re-introducing and managing to include fire is relative.

‘Prescribed fire can be traced back into the 70s,’ says Paul Langowski, USFS branch chief of fuels and fire ecology for the Rocky Mountain Region. ‘But it didn't truly increase in importance until the mid-1990s when we started seeing large-scale fires across the west.’

Colorado has had its share of those fires. Perhaps the first that really got the state's attention was the Buffalo Creek fire and flood of 1996. It gave Denver Water a bad taste of how much damage a fire could create in its water supply.

The fire, which burned almost 12,000 acres in five hours on May 17, was followed by a severe rainstorm on July 12.

The fire burned so hot it created a layer of hydrophobic soils impenetrable to water. When the rain hit and ran off, it took the soil with it, flushing sediments into the north fork of the South Platte River and down into Strontia Springs Reservoir.

Strontia Springs, through which 75 percent of Denver's water passes, was bombarded with 13 years worth of sediments. Denver Water spent an estimated $1 million in immediate cleanup after the fire and millions more since.

The agency was forced to build a pre-treatment plant to filter out extra sediments before the original Foothills treatment plant could handle the turbid water.

Buffalo Creek was dwarfed in scale by the fires that raged in 2002. At the height of a record drought, Colorado's forests were loaded with dry fuels. That combined with windy conditions and dense tree stands resulted in fires that were impossible to beat.

Hayman, the largest fire in Colorado history, charred 138,000 acres of forest southwest of Denver and northwest of Colorado Springs. More than $42 million was spent suppressing the fire, and another $36 million to rehabilitate the damaged watershed. Property loss was estimated at $23 million.

During the same summer, the Missionary Ridge Fire blazed through 73,000 acres of southwestern Colorado just north of Durango. It burned for more than a month. The first post-fire rain fell two months later, sending debris and ash into the Pine and Florida Rivers that supply water to much of that region.

‘The first rains dropped maybe one quarter or one half inch of rain,’ says La Plata County Director of Emergency Services Butch Knowlton. ‘Normally that wouldn't do any damage. But at that time, it created a significant problem.’

The Lemon and Vallecito reservoirs were swamped with debris and ash 6-12 inches deep, says Knowlton, affecting water supplies for Bayfield, Ignacio and Durango, as well as the Southern Ute Nation.

Fire and rain really don't mix. When a fire burns, it consumes both the vegetation and groundcover. When rain hits the bare earth, it immediately runs off, rather than soaking into the ground.

‘Expect your runoff to be three times that of normal,’ says Beth Roman, Denver Water's source of supply staff analyst.

Soil erosion is the biggest threat to water quality following a fire. Chemical reactions within the soil can make the erosion even worse.

‘If the fire burns hot enough,’ says Joan Carlson, water quality specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, ‘it can create a hydrophobic layer in the soil that is impenetrable to water [as in the Buffalo Creek fire]. Water will hit that layer and run off, taking the top layer of soil with it.’

The extra sediments in the runoff affect the water's suitability for drinking, agriculture or industrial uses and increase treatment costs, says Carlson. Increased turbidity also affects aquatic life by preventing light penetration, reducing primary productivity and clogging the gills of fish and other aquatic organisms. The extra sediments damage habitat by smothering fish spawning gravels.

After the Hayman fire, Denver Water took another hit. Forty percent of the Hayman burned area drains into Strontia Springs.

‘We're going to have ongoing problems,’ says Roman, who calculates that the capacity of Strontia Springs shrunk by nearly 10 percent from the combined sediments washed down with the Hayman and Buffalo Creek fires.

Twelve years after Buffalo Creek, Denver Water continues to consult with engineering firms to determine how sediments are accumulating in Strontia Springs. According to Roman, the agency plans to build a floating dredging system that will pipe 800,000 cubic yards of sediment out of the reservoir to dry in old sand filtration beds. They'll use the material for bedding buried pipes in order to recoup costs, which are estimated at $23 million.

Denver Water learned from Buffalo Creek, and was able to protect its oldest reservoir, Cheeseman, which was surrounded by Hayman's flames.

‘We sent people to work right away conducting restoration efforts to keep sediments from migrating into the reservoir,’ says Roman. ‘The dam is over 100 years old. We knew we needed to act fast.’

Those efforts paid off, and Cheeseman hasn't had nearly the problems Strontia Springs has.

The USFS has its own division dedicated to protecting water resources following a fire. After ensuring human safety by minimizing the risks of landslides and debris flows, Burned Area Emergency Rehab teams apply land treatments to minimize soil erosion.

From aerial seeding to spreading straw mulch across a barren landscape to moving dead trees parallel to the slope to act as erosion barriers, they try to lay some kind of groundcover before the first damaging storm. After the Buffalo Creek fire, BAER teams spent $1.8 million. Following Hayman, they spent $22 million, the largest BAER expenditure to date in the nation, according to Tommy John, regional BAER coordinator and soil scientist.

Considering the tremendous costs of fire suppression, property loss, and watershed rehabilitation, lawmakers' attempts to move more money into the proactive front of fuels treatment seem prudent and long overdue. Colorado's congressional delegation has been fighting on a national level to win more U.S. funds for the effort. And state Sen. Dan Gibbs co-sponsored legislation to provide loans up to $20 million per year to water providers to use for fire mitigation in their watersheds. The idea is simple: spend money up front to prevent catastrophic fire rather than paying later to clean up. House bill 07-1130 passed, granting $1 million for a dozen restoration projects.

Even with the necessary funds, managers must strategize which areas to target first. The Colorado State Forest Service is planning to release an updated statewide fire risk assessment in mid-May that will help decision-makers prioritize where to utilize limited resources, says Rich Holman, the state agency's fire management division supervisor.

According to the USFS, an estimated 4.5 million acres of Colorado's National Forest system lands are currently at high risk from insect, disease and catastrophic damage including fire. To put that in perspective, consider that it has taken Langowski's fuels and fire ecology division seven years of hard work to treat roughly 375,000 acres using a combination of prescribed fires and mechanical thinning to reduce hazardous fuels.

The USFS isn't the only agency working on fuel reduction. The Colorado State Forest Service is a major player, partnering with local communities as well as water agencies and county governments to provide technical assistance for carrying out wildfire protection plans.

Yes, even water providers are at work in the forest. They are as concerned with the headwaters environment as anyone. In fact, Denver Water began working with the Colorado State Forest Service before the Hayman fire.
‘We have almost 8,500 acres surrounding and including Cheeseman Reservoir, purchased so we could protect that watershed,’ says Roman. ‘A lot of what we do has to do with thinning and creating healthy forest conditions.’

A truly healthy forest will require movement toward a future where fire can function as closely as possible to its natural role. By gradually restoring fire to the forest, the hope is that the natural processes will once again become self-regulating and beneficial, rather than disastrous.

Fire, after all, regenerates the forest. By consuming accumulated tree litter, accelerating the return of nutrients to the soil, and keeping the forest free of dense underbrush, fire leaves surviving trees better off with increased access to light, water and nutrients. Some species, such as the lodgepole pine, need fire to regenerate. They have what's called a serotinous cone, which relies on extreme heat to open and release the seeds inside.

‘The bottom line is we're trying to emulate natural processes and match how those functioned in the natural environment,’ Langowski says.

The goal of restoring fire is shared by environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy. A healthy forest is not only less susceptible to catastrophic fire, it also provides better wildlife habitat and a healthy watershed by protecting snowpack, trapping pollutants, and minimizing soil erosion.

The Nature Conservancy's government relations program manager, Paige Lewis, is involved with advising state and federal agencies in planning to restore fire in a way that is ‘ecologically responsible.’

‘We're interested in being involved in the discussion with agencies in asking, 'What does it mean to really restore and protect those watersheds?'’ Lewis says.

Lewis believes foresters are doing the right things with the right tools, but not at the right scale.

‘It takes a lot of coordination across forest ownership,’ says Lewis. She hopes Colorado's new Forest Health Advisory Council will make that coordination more effective.

Gov. Bill Ritter created the council in February, convening experts and policymakers into an action-oriented task force focused on the pine beetle epidemic and other forest threats. Lewis will be providing staff support to the council.

Pressures on Colorado's resources come in many forms. One is the challenge posed to forest managers as people continue to move into the wildland-urban interface, living within or adjacent to forested land. It makes the job of managing to include fire increasingly tricky.

Not to mention that the task is absolutely huge. The forests are massive. And again, the funds are limited. This year, the U.S. Forest Service has $18 million to conduct hazardous fuels treatments in Colorado, which includes $4 million above base funding allocated specifically to address high priority treatment areas, says Langowski.

Revitalizing the forest products industry to offset the cost of tree removal and thinning is another proposal from legislators. Even environmentalists, long opposed to logging, are supportive of the idea if it can be done on an appropriate scale.

‘The idea behind this is that if there were more businesses that could profit from the woody material removed during forest treatments,’ says Lewis, ‘we would be able to reduce the overall costs of forest restoration.’
Colorado's forests are already burning, and state foresters won't predict what kind of fire season lies ahead.

Lodgepoles' Last Stand

Mountain pine beetles, once little-known pests, have achieved infamy as they continue to decimate lodgepole pines. From Colorado to British Columbia, an aging forest is under attack from the tiny beetles.

‘The infestation as of last fall [in Colorado] was 1.5 million acres,’ says Susan Gray, group leader for forest health protection for the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region. ‘Those are staggering results.’
There are only 1.7 million acres of pure lodgepole pine forests in Colorado.

No human action can effectively stop the beetles as they fly from tree to tree, burrowing in the bark to hatch their larvae. The epidemic must now run its course, and within three to five years, most mature lodgepoles in Colorado will be dead.

‘That's if the infestation continues at its current rate and intensity,’ says Gray. ‘The most important thing that has set back previous infestations is really cold weather.’

The combination of drought-weakened trees and unseasonably warm winters created what some call ‘the perfect storm.’ Mountain pine beetles, which typically survive in stressed or weakened trees, are attacking even seemingly healthy trees. The beetles prefer evenly-aged stands of densely-packed mature pine.

Most of Colorado's lodgepole forests are the same age, and they are old. Mountain pine beetles are part of the lodgepole's natural life cycle, and many scientists accept as inevitable the process of death and rebirth. They expect the forest will regenerate in a more diversified form that is less prone to such dramatic effects from insects, disease or fire.

‘Everyone, including the Forest Service, accepts there is nothing that can be done to stop the beetle infestation,’ says Greg Aplet, senior forest scientist for the Wilderness Society. ‘The question is: Is there anything that needs to be done as a result of it?’

Ted Wang, Granby's mayor from 2004 to 2008, would answer in the affirmative. Wang has been extremely active on the beetle front through his involvement in the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments and the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative. Wang, who's witnessed the die-off of 100 percent of the lodgepoles on the west side of the Rocky Mountain National Park outside Granby, has been working to secure funding to cut down the dead trees. He says the biggest threats are to life, infrastructure and key watersheds.

‘Some of those things are threatened at the very least by falling trees,’ says Wang. ‘But the big worry is a huge fire.’
Wang and others support legislation introduced both at a national and state level to speed the dead trees' removal. State Sen. Dan Gibbs, a Silverthorne Democrat, sponsored a bill last year that provided $1 million for matching grants for forest restoration, including tree removal and replanting in deforested areas. Projects selected under the Forest Restoration Pilot Program must protect water supplies. Pending senate approval, the program will be extended to 2012.

Tom Fry, national fire program lead for the Wilderness Society, sat on the program's technical advisory committee. He says that while the state's driving issue is community fire-risk reduction, the Wilderness Society wants to free up land managers to spend time restoring the integrity of forest ecosystems.

‘This is a great bill because it transcends just the beetle issue, which is specific to one type of forest, and allows us to tackle some other forest restoration issues,’ says Fry.

As Fry points out, lack of funding continues to be the resounding theme. Another way to offset the costs of tree removal is to utilize the dead pine.

‘The wood has some commercial value for about five years,’ says Wang. ‘As long as it's still standing. After that, it's good for wood pellets, biofuels, and non-structural lumber. It is degrading over time. Eventually it will become useless.’

Not everyone believes the dead wood will increase the risk of severe fire.

Says Aplet, ‘There is likely some added fire risk with the dry needles in the canopy. But the fire hazard drops dramatically once those needles fall. And in the decades after the trees fall to the ground, there's no evidence fire hazard will actually be elevated.’

Aplet notes that lodgepoles have a history where high-severity crown fires were part of the forest.

‘The risk of those fires burning is true whether the leaves have green needles or brown,’ says Aplet.

The Wilderness Society is working to keep fuel-reduction activities focused near the communities where it will make a difference, as opposed to a landscape-scale approach.

According to Gray, the forest service is indeed focused on reducing fire hazards in areas where people are living, and in areas surrounding key watersheds. It seems with an infestation this large, it would be futile to attempt more.
Though lodgepoles have been most severely affected, the beetles have also killed bristlecone and limber pine. Foresters predict the beetles will move into ponderosas next.

‘Because we can see it coming,’ says Gray, ‘we have the opportunity to do more to increase regeneration in ponderosa pine stands. We'll give the forest a head start for growing fast.’

Some have suggested an upside to the beetle epidemic is the likelihood of increased water yield downstream. Kelly Elder, research hydrologist for the USFS Fraser Experimental Forest says it is still premature to say for sure.

‘Almost anything you do to the forest that reduces the number of trees is going to increase water yield,’ says Alder.

‘But there's a threshold in a snow-dominated hydrologic regime where you can actually decrease the water yield.’
He says that is because the missing trees would affect snowpack accumulation. He also points out that a new forest will regenerate in the wake of the dying one.

‘A thirsty forest will still be there,’ says Alder.

‘It's an important question,’ says Alder. ‘That's why we're studying it.’

The gluttonous scientist in Gray finds the beetle epidemic extremely interesting: ‘I look at this and go, wow, this is a once in a lifetime event that we're witnessing. No one in recorded history has ever seen something like this. But if you look at it from the aesthetics, the economics of the recreation community, the threat of wildfire, it's also a catastrophic event for so many aspects of society.’ q

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