Chris Lane, Tom Cardamone and Jamie Cundiff: Guest opinion
October 27, 2012
Recently, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies staff attended Colorado’s 2012 Forest Summit in Denver. It was attended by many pertinent Colorado politicians including Gov. John Hicklenlooper, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and State Sens. Gail Schwartz and Ellen Roberts.
Decades ago, this summit might have focused on how best to harvest our forests to create wood, pulp and paper products. However, due to anthropogenic climate change, causing increased droughts, bark-beetle infestations and wildfires, the focus of this summit was on forest health, watershed protection and forest resiliency.
With this summit, we see a turning of the tide in how our state and our country view forest management. Society is finally learning that managing our forests in the most ecologically sound fashion has collateral economic benefits far greater than the mere value of wood products. Consequently, ecological restoration of our forests now is a primary goal of the U.S. Forest Service.
Our national forests are worth saving. In addition to their environmental and social values, their streams, rivers and aquifers supply drinking water to 66 million people. More than 170 million people recreate each year on U.S. Forest Service lands. Forests sequester 11 percent of the carbon our nation emits each year.
Still, the overwhelming sentiment echoed among agency representatives was one of frustration, as federal budgets continue to be slashed despite increasing threats from wildfire, drought and insect and disease epidemics in our forests.
One of the most overt results of the current condition of our forests is the dramatic increase in the number and intensity of wildfires. So far, this year marked the nation’s second-largest wildfire season on record, with more than 8.9 million acres burned from 48,258 fires. With fires still raging in Western states, we will surpass that record in only a few more weeks, making 2012 the worst fire season ever recorded. The nation’s fire season has increased by 78 days since 1980. We taxpayers spent $2.45 billion this year on fighting fires – half of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget!
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Colorado’s wildfire season was the third-largest on record, a major concern for a state with 40 percent of its residents living in the wildland urban interface. Drought-stressed trees resulting from a continually warming climate are more susceptible to insect and disease mortality, and dead trees release carbon that was previously sequestered in the form of wood. This increase in fuel loading and atmospheric carbon dioxide further perpetuates a feedback loop of increased fire risk. The consequences of this are concerning: More than 65 percent of Front Range drinking water is derived from our forests; and due to increased erosion caused by wildfires, we could experience impacts equivalent to an 100-year flood, from just a five-year rain event. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent recently to restore reservoirs damaged by fire-induced siltation.
With Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ For the Forest Program, we are working to educate the public on these issues. ACES has partnered with the city of Aspen and Pitkin County on the recent Smuggler Mountain forest restoration project, which will promote age class and species diversity in those forests, contributing to overall forest resiliency.
At ACES’ Rock Bottom Ranch site, we recently completed a project that opened the forest floor and mimics natural flooding cycles to rejuvenate aging cottonwood stands. The ultimate goal is to use excess wood to create biochar, which sequesters carbon while improving soil quality.
ACES partnership with the Forest Service, City, and County on the Hunter Creek-Smuggler Mountain Cooperative Plan aims to improve forest health, wildlife habitat, and recreation opportunities in 4,000 acres of Aspen’s wildland urban interface.
As wildfires still burn in many states, our leaders must apply the difficult lessons we’ve learned over the years to develop concrete, environmentally sound policies to ensure the long-term ecological health of our nation’s forests in a rapidly warming environment.
As ACES’ attention to forest health grows, we are committed to continuing collaboration to address state and nationwide forest health crises. Colorado’s 2012 Forest Summit buttresses that commitment.