Federal officials entrusted with managing millions of acres of forest in Colorado and surrounding states say they’re facing accelerated decline driven by climate warming, insect infestation, megafires and surging human incursions.
They’ve been struggling for years to restore resilience and ecological balance to western forests.
But they’re falling further behind on key tasks, such as selectively thinning trees to offset the harm from decades of aggressive firefighting — often to protect houses built in woods — that has loaded forests with fuels that bring bigger burns.
“We’re in a situation where we need to act. We know we need to act. Boy, it is a daunting task,” Patricia O’Connor, the U.S. Forest Service’s acting regional forester, said in a recent interview, acknowledging a slide into widespread unhealthy conditions.
“We’re trying to change that trajectory. The problem,” O’Connor said, “is that the scale on which we need to operate is very large.”
Stakes are high — for people who rely on forests for water and as an escape from cities, for wildlife surviving on fragmented habitat, and for plants that draw down heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Wildfires last year exploded across the 22 million acres of Colorado forests, burning nearly 700,000 acres and including the three largest fires ever recorded in the state.
And top officials at the Forest Service regional headquarters west of Denver expressed urgency. For 115 years, this agency has served as a hub of expertise for taking care of once-vast and fertile forests and grasslands. A national policy, set in 2012, prioritizes restoration to a healthy ecological balance.
Yet this work has lagged, particularly under President Donald Trump, who tilted forest management toward logging extraction of profitable volumes of timber, mining and energy development, rather than the often-costly selective thinning that ecologists recommend to replicate nature’s resilient, multi-species mosaics. Trump also asserted, as ruinous wildfires ravaged federally-managed forests in California, a need to “rake” forests — the thinning that ecologists recommend — as part of his political argument that poor forest health was more to blame than climate warming in causing megafires.
And Forest Service leadership positions have stayed vacant, weakening collaboration in western states where national forests are concentrated.
There’s been no regional forester in Denver for more than 14 months, the leader who oversees 40 million acres of forests and grasslands across five states (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming). Similarly, the top forester posts for multi-state southwestern and intermountain regions haven’t been filled.
This week, another temporary “acting” regional forester, Tammy Angel, will take over from O’Connor, who broke from her duties supervising the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming for three months. Angel stepped up to run operations for the three months, until agency chiefs in Washington, D.C. fill the position.
Meanwhile, widespread extreme drought is drying forest soil.
“It’s the whole West. This is about a combination of climate change, drought, insects, disease… and the fact that we’ve been suppressing fires for a century and added fuel loads onto the ecosystems,” O’Connor said. “The trajectory we’re on right now, we cannot get ahead of the issues. We are going to have fire. Fire is part of the landscape. We need to live with that.”
Outside the agency, scientists welcomed the shift from Trump to President Joe Biden as an opportunity to ramp up federal work to save forests.
“The purpose of the work of the Forest Service is to sustain the health of the forests, to sustain the biodiversity, and to help mitigate the consequences of climate change,” said Colorado-based forest ecologist Greg Aplet, science director for the Wilderness Society, who pointed to internal agency dynamics that may incentivize timber removal instead of boosting resilience.
“Right now, forest service officials have planning rules developed in 2012 that direct them to sustain ecosystems. But what they have lacked since then is strong leadership that drives home the point that this is their job,” Aplet said.
“The biggest problem we face is the susceptibility to fire in the low-elevation forests that historically could accommodate fires because they were open, with few fuels on the surface. Now these are crowded with fuel,” he said. Last year’s fires burned primarily at high elevation and “those forests will come back strong. But this was a warning shot. We cannot wait to see that same kind of fire behavior in our low-elevation forests.”
Low-elevation pinon and ponderosa forests cannot easily endure frequent, large, high-intensity wildfires.
Forest health work ranges from cutting down trees, sometimes across an acre or more, setting “prescribed fires” deliberately to mimic nature’s culling, and mechanical cutting by chain-saw workers who remove trees here and there while leaving a multi-species mix in spaces exposed to more sunlight.
A recent Colorado State Forest Service study estimates a $4.2 billion backlog in tree-thinning needed to create safety buffers around the most at-risk homes built in woods — work that taxpayers and property owners generally must pay for rather than profitable logging when market conditions are right.
Last year, federal land managers contracted for a mix of forest thinning and logging designed to boost forest health across 78,000 acres in Colorado. This year, they plan to conduct various “treatments” on 82,000 acres.
Deputy regional forester Jacqueline Buchanan, serving in the Denver office since 2013, has helped ensure continuity in relations with state and local government partners.
The number of Forest Service employees for the five-state region hovers around 2,000, down from 2,698 in 2013. The budget has been about $242 million.
“How can we make up some ground? We’re not holding steady,” Buchanan said. “It’s about doing the right treatment on the right acre, at the right time. Some of those 600,000 acres that burned were good — low-intensity fire at the right place, and the fire will probably help that land come back to better than it was. It cleaned up what needed to be cleaned up and will allow nature to take its course.”
Beyond efforts to rebalance fuels and burn-zone work to minimize erosion, rapidly increasing recreational visitation looms as an additional “loving-it-to-death” driver of degradation.
More people bring more conflicts, such as fighting for scare space in deteriorating campgrounds. Forest officials devote ever-more hours to developing travel management plans and other efforts to balance competing interests.
“We welcome visitors. We really do believe we should have inclusive and open public lands where people can enjoy recreational activities, gathering, hunting. But the more people you have. … and it isn’t just the numbers. They all want something different from the forest,” O’Connor said.
“We have travel management rules that say areas are off limits to motorized vehicles unless they are designated as open. And this is also about how many hikers you want in an area at one time. We don’t take it lightly. We take a hard look at the new science,” she said. “You have competing values. It’s going to be a continuing dilemma.”
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