A fine balance: a healthy forest counters living trees with those dead and dying.


Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, Healthy Landscapes – Letting Fire Back In

by Tony Cheng, Professor of forestry and director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University Category:

My kids are at an age where they still like to hang out with me. My work as a forestry professor at Colorado State University, where I’m also the director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, takes me out into the woods a lot. I frequently drag my kids along on field trips, where I give presentations to a variety of audiences. Unlike calculus, forestry is a tangible science, where even kids can immediately grasp concepts. On a recent field trip that my son attended, he afterwards said, “Fire is actually good for the forest, right dad?” The simple answer is, “Yes.”  But it’s obviously more complicated. Like anything in the natural world, simple answers belie how complex things really are.

Like in virtually every place on the planet, the forests of the Rocky Mountains are facing an uncertain future. Wildfires, large insect outbreaks, and other climate-induced die-offs are changing the complexion of the region’s forests. This has led to a common refrain: we are facing a “forest health crisis.”  But what exactly is a healthy forest?  There is no one scientific definition of forest health; the notion is a human construct imbued with social and cultural meaning. A healthy forest thus depends on who is doing the defining.

Most of us would agree that a healthy forest is one that has living trees. But a healthy forest is also one that has a counter balance of dying and dead trees; it’s a matter of degree. Forests can only rejuvenate and persist with a constant cycle of birth, life, and death. So back to forest fires. For the better part of a century in the US, the prevailing social and cultural norm has been that fire is bad and makes for an unhealthy forest. Even though forest scientists and managers going back to the 1920’s recognized the importance of fire in maintaining natural forests, policies and management practices since the early 1900s have been oriented towards suppressing fires. As a consequence, a lot of the Rocky Mountain’s forests have increased in density, favoring less fire-tolerant tree and squeezing out fire-resistant tree species. A lot of money and effort is now being expended to thin out many of these forests.

A necessary solution is letting fire back in. But are we prepared to do so?

The birth-life-death cycle of forests span decades, sometimes centuries. In today’s attention-deficit society, sustaining the patient, long-range view of forests poses an enormous challenge, as does sustaining long-term experience with a particular forest: professional forest managers and landowners turn over on a frequent basis. However, working against the tide is “community-based forestry, ” broadly named initiatives that advance the notion that the long-term relationship communities of place can have with their surrounding forests presents an opportunity to manage forest change thoughtfully for the benefit of both the ecosystem and society.

People, families, and communities that cultivate forest stewardship knowledge and practices over long periods of time can accumulate an appreciation for what a forest needs to be resilient – that is, to continually absorb and recover from disturbances without losing its vital components. And it’s not just trees that comprise forests, but also the diversity of plants and animals, water flows to streams and rivers, and opportunities for families to derive a livelihood without destroying the very thing that provides that livelihood.

If that sounds too pie-in-the-sky, let me provide an illustrative case study. In the far western part of Colorado lies the Uncompahgre Plateau, a large fault-block uplift rising out of the upper reaches of the Colorado River Plateau, the last step of the Grand Staircase. Inhabited for millennia by native peoples, it was settled in the late 1800’s by Euro-Americans, who proceeded to graze livestock and log trees for growing communities and industries. In the 1990’s, biologists started noticing a decline in the local mule deer populations. One of the hypothesized root causes was a loss of native plants because of in-growth of trees due to historic land uses and fire suppression. A series of large wildfires in the early 2000s compounded the concern that the forests of the Uncompahgre Plateau had evolved into a condition that would result in future ecological loss – and the loss of ecosystem services those forests provide to local communities and society at large. In short, there was a growing recognition that the forests had become “unhealthy.”

In 2007, the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute joined forces with the US Forest Service, conservation groups, forest industry, and local community residents to devise a plan to restore parts of the Uncompahgre Plateau’s forests. The plan had several objectives: 1) restore forest conditions through a combination of logging and managed fire to approximate forest conditions prior to Euro-American settlement, when fires and other natural agents shaped the forest; 2) set up the landscape so that future fires could burn in a natural manner, but also without placing people and property at risk; 3) provide opportunities for local forest industry to utilize wood from logging projects; 4) carry out a science-based monitoring strategy to gauge the ecological and socio-economic effects of the project; and 5) carry out the project in a collaborative fashion so that interested and affected community stakeholders can continually learn and participate. Because of the collaborative nature of the project, the plan proposed by the Forest Service was not appealed or litigated, despite containing plans for extensive logging and burning.

To date, about 3,000 acres of forest have been selectively logged in a way that mimics historic forest conditions and fire has been applied by managers to spur the growth of native plants. The forestry projects have all gone to local forest industry operators, including some multi-generational small businesses. A forestry internship program was established to hire students from one of the local community high schools to conduct monitoring with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute. Students have made presentations to the local community, led field trips, and shared their experiences with their families, neighbors, and friends. The project has also provided graduate students at Colorado State University opportunities to conduct research in a way that informs future management and produces solid scientific knowledge.

In the whole scope of forest change, this project is still only a blip in time. The impact of this project may not be known for decades to come, or at least until the next big fire explodes and hits the project area. Fingers are crossed that all this work will result in the fire having only positive benefits and limited downsides. However, the foundation it lays for long-term community stewardship of the local forest holds promise. There are now young adults who have gained a deep understanding and appreciation of the Uncompahgre’s forests, as a result of working as high school students on the forestry intern crew. New community members are taking an interest in the project and are attending field trips. And the information collected from the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute’s monitoring work serves as a critical foundation of knowledge for how the forest might change over time.

A healthy forest is one that depends on an engaged community and engaged landowners over the long-term. A community that understands and appreciates the long cycle of birth-life-death of a forest, and takes part in ensuring that this cycle is sustained while contributing to community livelihoods. In turn, communities depend on a healthy forest to meet the needs of present and future generations. When my son’s grandkids are old and grey, I hope they are part of such a community.