Aspen Center for Environmental Studies examines how the forest will recover from Lake Christine Fire
Aspen-area forests took a beating this year from drought and hot temperatures while parts of Basalt Mountain suffered severe enough fire damage that it could take centuries for some vegetation types to recover, according to an assessment by Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
ACES released its annual State of the Forest Report on Friday. For the past five years it has produced the report to help Roaring Fork Valley residents gauge how the surrounding forests are faring with challenges such as disease and insects.
This year, the assessment took a definitive direction that seems destined to repeat in coming years, Adam McCurdy, ACES forest program director, said Friday.
“The story of drought in our forest seems to be the pervasive theme for the foreseeable future,” McCurdy said.
While snowfall in the Roaring Fork River watershed is hovering around average this winter, “we’re still a long way from catching up,” he said.
The Jan. 10 update by the U.S. Drought Monitor classifies most of Pitkin County and all of Eagle and Garfield counties in severe drought. Southern Pitkin County is considered to be facing extreme drought, third worse in a scale of four.
The Forest Report is easy for lay people to digest and is graphically oriented. It has sections that explain how drought can lead to the death of a tree and tackles bigger picture issues such as how drought, fire and flooding can affect communities. It concludes with what climate science says about drought in the future.
McCurdy said the Aspen area is “on the line” in climate predictions. Areas to the south and west are expected to receive less precipitation than in the past as the planet warms. Areas to the north and east are expected to receive more.
There is little doubt that the climate will be warmer. Even if an area receives average levels of precipitation, warmer temperatures can still create droughts, which stress trees and make them more vulnerable to disease and pests, McCurdy said.
This year’s report by ACES examined the destruction in Colorado by wildfire. About 455,445 acres of forest were torched, nearly five times the annual average.
“During 2018, low snowpack and late monsoons created the perfect recipe for higher fire danger,” the report said. The result was the most damaging wildfire season since 2002.
The Lake Christine Fire in the mid-Roaring Fork Valley burned more than 12,500 acres and destroyed three homes. The fire ripped through pinyon-juniper forests on many of the lower slopes above Basalt and El Jebel.
“When pinyon-juniper do burn, it is often high severity, and without frequent fires, their seeds haven’t evolved to survive fires,” the report said.
In an interview, McCurdy said that means it could be as long as 400 years before the pinyon and juniper trees return to the areas where they were burned on Basalt Mountain. Grasses and forbs are likely to return first to the fire scar, following by Gambel oak, sagebrush and mountain mahogany.
“The wildlife will love it,” he said.
In mid-range elevations of Basalt Mountain, it was already evident last fall that Gambel oak shoots were springing to life. That’s due to deep root systems, McCurdy said.
In the highest elevations of the mountain, the outlook is mixed.
Blue spruce and subalpine fir destroyed by the fire are unlikely to bounce back quickly, if at all, McCurdy said. Lodgepole pines have adapted differently to fire and depend on it to open their seeds.
Aspen trees tend to bounce back well and there’s potential they could spread on the mountain, McCurdy said.
The recovery is going to show how forests are dynamic places where change happens in spurts, he said. ACES is talking to the U.S. Forest Service, or was before the shutdown, about the possibility of leading hikes into the burn area to study forest recovery, McCurdy said.
The Forest Report will soon be posted on ACES’s website at http://www.aspennature.org.
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