ACES puts forest health in the spotlight |

ACES puts forest health in the spotlight

Janet UrquhartThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies won’t be getting out of the woods any time soon. Nor does it want to.Since absorbing the mission of former local nonprofit group For the Forest a year ago, ACES has been busy with more than its hallmark slate of ecology and natural-sciences educational programs for children and adults.It has taken a lead role in developing the proposed Hunter Creek-Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan for habitat, forest-health and recreation improvements on more than 4,000 acres of national forest on the edge of Aspen. It’s also recruiting “citizen scientists” to help monitor local forests and, along with the Aspen Global Change Institute, is working on a Forest Health Index that will give an annual, numerical score to forest health in the Roaring Fork River basin. It will inform an annual State of the Forest report, which will debut this year with the 2012 report.And ACES has developed a four-minute, animated short film, “What’s Happening in Our Forest?” to raise awareness about forest-health issues among the public and policymakers. The film has been submitted to the New York Animated Short Film Festival, and if Chris Lane, CEO at ACES, has anything to say about it, it will log a million views on YouTube (it hit 700 by Monday morning). Go to to see it.”On forest issues, we want to be more vocal,” Lane said, launching into forest issues and the link between forest health and climate change with a rapid-fire delivery during an interview in his office last week.”If we don’t have a healthy forest, we’ll have more carbon, more fire and less water,” he said, rattling off mind-boggling statistics: Drinking water for more than 60 million Americans is derived from forests; the nation’s forests sequester 11 percent of annual U.S. carbon emissions.Later this year, ACES intends to unveil its Forest Health Index, which will take a bunch of key indicators of forest health and analyze them together to portray the state of the local forest in a way that’s easy to understand. The index requires tracking a lot of data, including some that has been compiled for years, such as temperature highs and lows and the number of frost-free days annually, plus new information – soil-moisture readings gleaned from sensors placed in Hunter Creek and at Sky Mountain Park outside Snowmass Village, for example. The index also will rely on the observations of members of the public, trained by ACES, who will note when various tree species bud, leaf out and lose their leaves each year. They’ll help track bird migrations, as well.In all, 19 different sets of data will be incorporated into the index. “We’ll come up with a numerical value that says the good, the bad and the ugly,” Lane said. The end goal, he said, is helping forest managers and decision makers to actively manage forest lands outside wilderness areas, much as the Hunter Creek-Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan envisions. Developed with the U.S. Forest Service, Aspen and Pitkin County, it proposes more than 800 acres of potential forest-restoration projects that also can improve wildlife habitat and reduce wildfire danger.Its precursor, spearheaded by For the Forest before it was folded into ACES, was work to slow the advance of pine beetles on city-county open space on Smuggler Mountain. Projects to clear swathes of old-growth oak and dead pines on Smuggler in order to promote new growth have followed.At ACES’ Rock Bottom Ranch property outside of Basalt, an experiment is under way to regenerate cottonwoods. In the process, big piles of wood chips have been created to fuel a planned biochar pilot project at the ranch.Biochar is wood that has been pyrolyzed, or burned, in the absence of oxygen. The resulting material sequesters carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere as wood decays, and helps soils retain water and nutrients, according to ACES. It was used to successfully revegetate a barren mine-waste pile outside of Aspen – another For the Forest project.There are potential uses for biochar in the Hunter Creek-Smuggler plan, and ACES hopes to create a small operation to produce biochar at Rock Bottom Ranch once it acquires or creates a small “pyrolyzer” to do the burning.”We are bound and determined to make biochar at Rock Bottom Ranch,” said Tom Cardamone, former ACES executive director and now chief ecologist. “I have 300 cubic yards of wood chips waiting to be pyrolyzed.”

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