Treat forest, cut fire threat, speakers say

ASPEN — Large-scale use of forest thinning and prescribed burns is crucial to counteracting the increasing trend of major wildfires like those currently striking Colorado, speakers said at the annual Forests at Risk forum Monday.

“We need to move into an entirely new and expanded scope of work,” U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture Harris Sherman, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, told the group in videotaped remarks.

He had been scheduled to attend the event but ended up working at a command center in Denver in response to about a dozen active fires in the state.

Craig Allen, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico, said factors such as rising temperatures, drought and a century of fire suppression are leading to fires that are increasingly large in scale, and in some cases are converting landscapes from forest to grassland. With significant projected temperature increases under all climate-change models, it’s hard to imagine current forests in places like the Jemez Mountains surviving through the mid-century, but forest restoration efforts offer some hope, he said.

“It’s not fated yet how these forests will turn out,” he said.

But the proposed treatment measures drew skepticism from some at Monday’s event, among them Connie Harvey, a pioneering advocate for wilderness designation in the Aspen region.

“I’m concerned about the size of these projects,” she said, citing a Forest Service plan in the Roaring Fork Valley that involves treating 50,000 acres.

“Couldn’t we do this a little more cautiously? Must we do these massive treatments?” she asked.

Frank Lowenstein, climate adaptation strategy leader with the Nature Conservancy, said the problem is a prior failure to act that has created an urgent threat of big, intensive fires.

“It’s been well over 30 years that we’ve known we need to do something about climate change. We haven’t done it,” he said.

Ethan Aumack, director of restoration programs for the Grand Canyon Trust, is involved with the Forest Service and others in an effort to restore a million acres of national forest in northern Arizona. He said such projects should be given a lot of hard thought before acting, and the work being done there shouldn’t necessarily be replicated elsewhere.

“But thinking at the landscape level should be replicated,” he said.

Sherman said about 12.5 million acres of national forest need some form of mechanical treatment, which can cost $2,000 or more per acre.

The Forest Service is seeking to form public-private partnerships to do some restoration projects, including with entities that benefit from having a healthy forest. Jim Lochhead, chief executive officer of Denver Water, said the utility has struck a $33 million deal with the Forest Service to reduce fuel loads, fire risk and the danger of erosion on 38,000 acres in the utility’s watershed.

One prescribed fire conducted by the Colorado State Forest Service earlier this year on Denver Water property ended up going out of control and killing three people.

“Hopefully we can learn some lessons from the tragedy of the North Fork Fire, but we believe that active management needs to continue to occur,” Lochhead said.

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