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Forest Restoration

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.

In our semi-arid environment, frequent, low-grade forest fire was the natural control. These fires, typically caused by lightning, would regularly burn out undergrowth and most of the young trees competing for a piece of sky. Older, thick-barked ponderosa pines and other fire-adapted species could survive these blazes, even prospering from the release of nutrients following the burn. Historical photos of our area reveal comparatively sparse forests comprised of well-spaced mature trees. Enough young trees would survive to maintain the continuity of the forest. As the area became more populated, settlers began suppressing the fires, not understanding the critical role of fire in the natural ecosystem. This allowed the forests to grow too thick. Competition for limited resources led to less-healthy trees and parasite and disease outbreaks. Now, when a forest fire starts, it becomes much more intense and difficult to extinguish. Because of this, efforts at suppression grew ever more extreme — a vicious cycle.

Climate change is now exacerbating the situation further. In our area, this means hotter summers, less precipitation, and earlier snowmelt. We now have the choice between ignoring these effects or adapting to them. My wife, Amy, and I have chosen the latter.

Several stash piles burn in a treated section of forest. We wanted to create a mosaic, with open areas surrounded by woods for the “edge effect” preferred by wildlife.
Photo by Tracy Dahl

Taking Action

While we had long been aware of the condition of our 36 acres of forest land, we struggled to gain much of a toehold early on. Although we pecked away at forestry, competing priorities always relegated that effort to the back burner. In 2014, we discovered a federal assistance program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The program provides funding to encourage landowners to address environmental issues on their property.

The EQIP process begins with developing a forest management plan. We wanted healthier forests with increased carrying capacity for deer and other wildlife, and, of course, reduced wildfire risk. We worked closely with the Colorado State Forest Service to develop our management plan, which cost $1,300. Keen on seeing these types of projects move forward, our local soil and water conservation district covered half the cost.

In our area, the Stonewall Fire Protection District has a forest fire mitigation crew. We had the crew start with some of our most mistletoe-infested forest. We had two areas that were about 80 percent infested. The crew cut down a lot of trees in those areas — near clear-cut in some cases. We had them chip up the slash from the first 5 acres, resulting in about 100 cubic yards of mulch — a veritable mountain of mulch that we’re still using in our various gardening and horticultural efforts.