Remember Smoky the Bear? For nearly 70 years, Smoky educated the American public about the dangers of forest fires, and groups like The Nature Conservancy spent a lot of time and effort extinguishing them. But after Colorado experienced the second worst fire in U.S. history, the organization discovered putting out low-impact flames was doing more harm than good. Ironically, trees overpopulated the area and led to very hot, catastrophic fires that destroyed the Cache la Poudre Watershed -- one of the area's only fresh water sources. Now The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with Anheuser-Busch and the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed, are purposefully removing trees and issuing controlled burns to prevent another uncontrollable blaze. We spoke with their team to better understand this new prevention method, which they hope will serve as a model for other forest fire-prone states.
In Colorado, the phrase “forest fire” may as well be commensurate with a four letter word. For hundreds of years, forest fires have been a designated as very bad, so The Nature Conservancy is working hard to educate the public. In essence, this project is completely changing the way we fight fires, by shifting from a reactive approach to a proactive approach. Small wildfires are natural and not a bad thing. In fact, fire plays a very important ecological role and contributes to soil health.
According to Nature Conservancy experts, forests in Colorado are historically sparse. Because of so many years of suppressing natural burn-off, too many trees have grown unnaturally. The group is now trying to mimic natural fires with man power. TNC formulated a special “prescription” for cutting trees and burning the brush. A federally-certified fire crew of seven are cutting trees and administering controlled burns. In order to protect the wildlife habitat, the crew only cuts select trees in specific areas. They leave small clumps for wildlife that require them (like Abert squirrels) and leave open grazing areas for elk and deer. The “prescription” only cuts certain overpopulated trees, such as Douglass Fir. For instance, the crew is not allowed to cut any trees over 18 inches, nor Aspen or Ponderosa Pine.
The Cache de la Poudre Watershed rehabilitation project is located on the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch, a 3,200-acre boy scout ranch in the watershed directly bordering national forest. Since public forests are funded and controlled by other sources, TNC and their sponsoring partner Anheuser-Busch needed to do their controlled burns on private land that are accessible enough to the public for educational purposes. The group is experimenting with thinning trees in an area of 60 acres. So far they’ve treated 30 acres.
Elk Horn Creek runs right though Ben Delatour Scout Ranch, and is tributary to the Cache de la Poudre Watershed. The watershed supplies up to 50 percent of the local area’s water supply and 300,000 people on the front range. After the Hyde Park Fire of 2012, the Cache de la Poudre Watershed was ruined with inconceivable amounts of sediment and erosion — the water looked more like tar. Imagine 300,000 people losing their water source, their only option being bottled water? Luckily in this particular instance, a neighboring community shared their water supply. But it was clear that a more proactive approach to catastrophic wildfire prevention was necessary.
The watershed project is so far proving to be a successful approach, though there are still aspects of the program that need further thought. For instance, stacks upon stacks of timber are temporarily lying around Ben Delatour Scout Ranch without purpose. TNC and their team said they plan to use most of the wood for biomass or find creative ways to reuse it. The Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed have reused some of the timber for restoration projects, such as mimicking beaver habitat in erosion-prone areas.
The Nature Conversancy received $110,000 in funding from their partner Anheuser-Busch, which also uses the Cache de la Poudre Watershed as the main water source for its Fort Collins Budweiser brewery. Given that Western American forest fires are becoming a tremendous issue that can’t be reactively saved without billions of dollars, a more proactive is approach is increasingly appealing. After this experimental project is finished, TNC hopes to write “prescriptions” specifically suited to other forest-fire prone regions. We look forward to following this important initiative as it progresses.