A healthy balance
For four decades, beginning before I first joined the Wilderness Workshop in the 1970s, I have been a strong supporter of wilderness protection, and I commend your pending resolution supporting expanded congressional wilderness designation in Pitkin County. At the same time, I also thank you for including language in your resolution to allow for wilderness boundary adjustments to reduce wildfire danger to the public and safeguard forest health.
A number of factors make wilderness designation a more complicated issue than it was even a few years ago. The wildfire season across the West is now 78 days longer than two decades ago; warmer temperatures have created larger and more intense wildfires; and unprecedented insect epidemics, another harbinger of climate change, are ravaging millions of acres of our forests. If our mountain temperatures continue rising as predicted, climatologists, entomologists and forest scientists forecast more unexpected forest health “surprises” in the years ahead. Possible examples include a resurgence of sudden aspen decline, additional unnatural insect outbreaks and wildfires at higher elevations.
For The Forest believes in the critical importance of protecting areas of the wildland/urban interface (WUI) from these growing threats to forest health. Many reasons for this are cited in your own draft resolution: watershed protection, clean water, wildlife habitat, species diversity, wildfire reduction, quality of life, recreational activities (hiking, camping, fishing, cross-country skiing, wildlife viewing, etc.) and the economic well-being of our community.
Congressman Jared Polis sought an intelligent balance in his wilderness legislation for Summit and Eagle counties. Wilderness may be exactly the right designation for many areas, while others – especially in the WUI surrounding homes, communities and recreation areas – may deserve a “wilderness companion status” that allows for thoughtful stewardship of the land.
An appropriate level of companion status, for example, could prohibit undesired activities in a given forest area (e.g., commercial logging, oil and gas drilling, vehicle use, etc.), while allowing forest health measures that might be difficult under a full wilderness designation that could reduce our ability to conserve forests next to our communities. Drawing final wilderness boundaries will require thoughtful deliberation informed by our community values.
The important thing in the wildland-urban interface is to preserve the ability of the U.S. Forest Service to reduce wildfire potential, safeguard forest health and increase wildlife habitat. These goals can be attained through a variety of measures, but many of them come down to the simple concept of thinning. Thinning and creating small forest openings can reduce fuel loading, increase tree species and age diversity, expand wildlife populations, and strengthen the forest’s natural ability to fend off wildfire, insects and disease.
Stewardship measures like these can also offer another side benefit: keeping the forests around our communities green and healthy. And that’s something greatly appreciated by our residents and visitors.
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