Sunday, February 6, 2022

What is the Future of Fire and Water in Colorado?

The Marshall Fire that swept through Boulder County on December 30th, 2021 was pretty unexpected. The Cameron Peak Fire and Calwood Fires that affected Boulder and Larimer counties, were unexpected, but more typical for the forests around Colorado. Recently, I read an article recently that snow free winters were coming to Colorado before 2100. In other words, Colorado was going to be closer to New Mexico and Arizona in terms of weather. At the same time, the Colorado River basin is experiencing drought, and that affects a huge amount of agriculture and cities starting in western Colorado and all the way to California. 

Both issues, drought and fires are related and have some similar actions that can mitigate their damage. A decade ago beetles killed millions of trees in Colorado and across the mountain west and into Canada, and they all have a similar mitigating factor, thinning out the forests. It's not complicated, and it's not necessarily easy, but it's an excellent solution.

A crowded forest does a few things:

  • A dense forest soaks up all of the water that falls as rain and snow, leaving none to travel down to streams and rivers.
  • A dense forest grows rapidly in the weeks after heavy rain, and dries out faster in weeks of no rain, leading to being very dry and more likely to burn when exposed to fire. In other words, the forest grows rapidly in May and June, dries out in July and August, and burns in September and October.
  • A dense forest is more likely to spread bark pine beetles, and kill more trees. 
  • A dense forest constrains trees from flourishing because there is more competition for sunlight and water.
  • It's really hard to ski through a dense forest.
  • When a dense forest is wet it does product more oxygen and absorb up more carbon dioxide than a sparse forest, but that is largely wiped out when it burns, and the fact that the trees are competing for water and sunlight means that a forest with 20% of the trees will make more than 20% of the oxygen.
Before I go any farther, to be clear, I'm a huge fan of protecting old growth forests. I've never been to Olympic National Park, but I hear that's the premier old growth forest in the USA. I do know that Colorado has very little old growth forests, between logging and mining activities in the late 1800s and fires throughout history, we just don't have many 200 year old trees in this state. 

I'm a big fan of active forest management. This started back in 2002 when I did a Roving Outdoor Conservation School three week backpacking trek in New Mexico at Philmont Scout Ranch and learned all about forest fire mitigation, which was especially important because that year the northern portion of Philmont burned in a forest fire. In 2006 while a staff member at Philmont I actually carried a 4 foot long cross cut saw for nearly two weeks of backpacking to help maintain trails and thin out the forest. 

At it's core, thinning out the forest is simple, just cut down a portion of the trees, preferably the younger ones, less healthy ones (like already infected with beetles) or dead ones, simulating a fire with flames that are less than 10 feet above the ground. A way to accomplish that would simply be let people loose to cut down any tree less than 4 inches in diameter (which is plenty big for any camp fire or Christmas tree). In practice it's a little more complicated. First, people are efficient, and so the 1/4 mile next to roads would easily be cut down, but the areas 1+ mile away from roads would be left essentially untouched because it takes a lot of effort to walk in and cut down those trees and drag them out. To get those areas of forests thinned there has to be a business case. The business of lumber is such that larger diameter trees are worth more, and it's easier to cut all trees down in an area than 50% of the trees. So what do we do?

Individually, starting in 2022 I plan to thin the forests out just a bit in the areas that I use them where it's legally allowed. I have a small folding saw, less than a half pound that I intend to take hiking and backpacking. Many of the trails that I use are badly in need of maintenance and trimming some branches as I hike will help maintain the trail as well as reduce the water consumption in those area. Similarly at many of the places I camp a $20 permit allows the collection of up to 2.5 cords of dead wood, or cutting live trees and branches under 2" in diameter. While I don't have any specific plans for campfires, the forest fires the last two years have scared me into thinking that this might be every summer for the next 15+ years. I realize that my tiny impact will be imperceptible to everyone except professional foresters, but I have to do something. 

Collectively, we can support forest thinning operations on national forests. Here is a picture I took January 23, 2022 north east of Monarch Pass showing an area of forest that has been thinned, into utterly amazing looking backcountry ski lines. I bet tens of thousands of people see that section of forest from the north side of Monarch Pass and don't realize it's been thinned, especially in the summer. 
Monarch Pass January 23, 2022

We can't eliminate droughts or forest fires. We have to figure out how to live with them. We need clean air, you can only go a few minutes without it, and forest fire emissions put a lot of unhealthy particulate matter into the air. Similarly, without water we humans can only last a few days. Thinning out our forests in the years to come is one method that can help both increase the water supply and reduce the intensity of forest fires. It's not the be all end all solution to drought or wildfires, and it's impact on climate change is beyond my understanding at this time, except that it takes decades for a completely burnt forest to return to it's previous state, which of course doesn't help absorb as much carbon dioxide much during those rebuilding years. 

Of course, if we all use less resources that will help reduce our impact, and there are other options to reduce the impacts of droughts and fires that professionals are working on, and the way knowledge goes I could be proven wrong tomorrow, yet it's been 20 years since I first learned about overcrowded forests and unfortunately the problem only seems to have gotten worse in those two decades.

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