Forest Restoration

Improve the health of your forested land while reducing the risk of wildfire.


Photo by Tracy Dahl

By the time we were placed on pre-evacuation notice, we could already see the pyrocumulus clouds rising higher than 30,000 feet. Although they looked a little like rain clouds, no precipitation was forthcoming. The hot, dry weather and incessant winds were driving the Spring Creek Fire east, turning overgrown forests into a seemingly unstoppable inferno — bearing down on our homestead. The fire was still miles away, but it looked like it was nearly upon us. We began packing our essential and irreplaceable items, ready to flee for our lives.

Fortunately, the fire never reached our homestead. Ultimately, the Spring Creek Fire consumed more than 108,000 acres, making it the third-largest wildfire in Colorado’s recorded history at that time. Two years later, it’s the state’s fifth largest. If we had evacuated, we wouldn’t be leaving our homestead entirely to fate. We were in the third phase of a forest restoration project. Would our land have survived the Spring Creek Fire? Hard to say. That fire was extreme; the conditions were perfect for catastrophic spread. But now that our restoration project is completed, I can say with some certainty that our forest could not only survive, but likely thrive, through the more “normal” low-to-medium-intensity wildfires we see in our area.


Before restoration, a Gambel oak crowds a young ponderosa pine. This brush can act as a “ladder fuel.” carrying fire into the canopy.
Photo by Tracy Dahl

What Is Forest Restoration?

Forest restoration is returning a neglected forest to a balanced, healthy state. Landowners have several compelling reasons to embark on a forest restoration project. For us, wildfire mitigation topped the list. Wildfires are a global problem, but with necessarily local solutions. You can improve your forest and realize tangible benefits — even if wildfire never threatens.

Like much of the western United States, our land in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado was overgrown and unhealthy. Shortsighted forestry practices over the past 100-plus years have involved cutting out the best high-grade timber while leaving smaller or more poorly formed trees behind. With the higher canopy removed, young trees grew in densely, forming “dog-hair stands” of skinny trees, all the same age and species. This in turn has dramatically increased the likelihood of tree diseases. In our case, dwarf mistletoe infections became epidemic in the ponderosa pines. Dwarf mistletoe is a parasite that weakens and can ultimately kill the host. The parasite itself is barely noticeable. What you can see are malformed “witches’ broom” shoots on infected trees. This parasite reproduces by explosively ejecting seeds in midsummer, which stick to adjacent trees. Because of this unusual reproductive method, overly dense forests facilitate rapid spread. While a tree can occasionally be saved by pruning infected limbs, the only sure way to stop dwarf mistletoe from spreading further is to remove infected trees.

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