JCD’s Forestry Program
Over the past 150 years, land management activities such as uncontrolled logging, grazing, and wildfire suppression have contributed to changes in forest composition and structure, resulting in loss of habitat and species diversity (particularly loss of ponderosa pine and aspen habitat) and increased frequency of uncharacteristic, high-severity wildfire. The impact of these fires includes risk to human life, elimination of forest habitat (unable to regenerate for hundreds of years), lost recreation/economic opportunity, property loss, and damage to water supplies and infrastructure.
In close partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, JCD approaches forestry with a multi-resource benefit perspective.
Our actions in the forest seek to account for and benefit as many resources as possible, such as source water protection for Front Range water supplies, diverse fish and wildlife habitats, livestock forage, sustainable timber, and recreational opportunities. The aesthetic value of forests is also a resource, as evidenced by increasing populations within forested areas (also known as the wildland-urban interface, or WUI). These resource values and the hazards posed to them also translate into economic opportunity and liabilities; for example, recreation opportunities contribute to tourism, versus lost property values, degraded water quality, and threats to life and property in the event of an uncharacteristic wildfire. Ecology-based forest management can also have a ripple effect throughout local businesses that support the needs of the land management industry (eg forestry and weed management contractors, wood based mills and energy plants).
JCD assists private landowners by first understanding the goals and needs for their property. While some landowners have specific goals, like reducing wildfire risk or improving big game habitat for hunting, others have more general goals and “just wanna do what’s right for the forest.” Once the landowner’s goals are understood, JCD begins to address them within the context of the landscape’s ecology and historical management practices.
LOCAL ECOLOGY AND HISTORY
Understanding the local ecology means recognizing how organisms, both plants and animals, exist and interact in that particular landscape’s climate and physical environment (ie soil type, elevation, topography, precipitation, etc). Plants and animals are adapted to live under certain conditions and disturbance regimes, like wildfire or insect outbreaks. Knowing this, and in particular whether or not plants are adapted to high-severity or low-severity fire, helps determine what plant communities are most appropriate for a particular site.
Understanding historic land management activities can also help inform present-day management decisions. Uncontrolled logging, livestock grazing, and fire suppression practices began during the mid-1800s in the American West and have had tremendous impacts across the landscape. These activities have dramatically impacted the way low-elevation forests function and this is most evident with respect to wildfire. As a result, current forest conditions are very different than those that existed prior to significant human influences. In general, species composition of trees has shifted and tree densities have dramatically increased, and in turn, forests have become more uniform in age, structure (or arrangement of trees and meadows), and composition (or species of plants and animals). Diversity in these forest components has been lost across the landscape and its ability to support certain ecosystem services, such as wildlife habitat and clean water, has been diminished. Wildlife require a variety of habitat types; when the landscape is continuously covered with a single habitat type (eg a dense stand of trees), food webs are disrupted and many animal species can be forced out.
Fire behavior has also changed. Historically, low- and moderate-severity surface fires were common in low-elevation forests (generally up to 9,500 feet) and many trees survived wildfire, but now, widespread high-severity fires that eliminate forests are becoming the norm. Large,
severe fires put lives and property at greater risk, are more difficult to manage, and leave behind burned areas that are slow to recover leading to soil loss that damages water supplies and degrades water quality.
THE STATE OF THE FORESTS: HISTORY AND ECOLOGY
The history of the forests on Colorado's Front Range mirrors the history of the human habitation of the region. Before settlement by white Americans in the nineteenth century, forests were subject to a natural regime of disturbances, including periodic fires and assault by insects and disease, that regulated the makeup of forest stands. Since humans generally did not interfere with these natural processes, forests continually replenished themselves over a period of decades. This meant that, at any one time, there was a diversity of forest types within an area. Some trees may have been fairly young following a small fire or insect outbreak, others may have been quite a bit older, awaiting a disturbance to come along.
As Americans arrived from the east into Colorado in the mid-nineteenth century, seeking furs and then gold and silver, they began to interrupt these natural cycles for their own purposes. Mines and mining settlements required timber for construction, railroad ties, and fuel, and entire forests were clear-cut to provide the necessary material. As they had done before, these forests grew back, and large stands of a uniform age and species composition took root on Front Range hillsides.
The mines of Clear Creek and Gilpin counties stopped producing almost as suddenly as they started. By the 1890s, the price of silver could no longer support mining in these areas, and the large-scale cutting of entire forest stands generally ceased. Since then, the general practice of public land managers and private landowners has generally been one of suppression and preservation. The natural disturbances that might have been restored were instead suppressed in an effort to preserve the forest types as they were. Fires were fought aggressively in all parts of the forest, and insect outbreaks were managed to protect uninfected trees.
This confluence of events and strategies- the uniform ages and forest types produced in the nineteenth century and the aggressive suppression of disturbances in the twentieth- have combined to produce a twenty-first century forest that is very susceptible to large-scale events like fire and insects. Most forest stands on the Front Range are a single species, or uniform mix of species, and a single age. Lodgepole pine, Pinus contorta, one of the dominant species in this region, depends on fire in its reproductive cycle and therefore now consists of stands that may be entirely from a single year. By the year 2000 we had arrived at an entire forest region that lacked diversity of both age and species composition.
The term "Healthy Forest" often conjures up images of a verdant forest with large trees spread across a large area. Gaps in the forest, dead and dying trees, or fires, fires, insects and disease are usually seen as "unhealthy." However, in the conservation profession "forest health" has a more specific meaning. We use the term to describe a forest that is diverse and resilient. Diversity includes both diversity of age and species. Resiliency is the forest's ability to withstand disturbances in a natural way.
Front Range forests, as described above, often lack diversity and resiliency because of their history. The Buffalo Creek, Hi Meadow and Hayman Fires of the past two decades testify to how quickly fires can spread through a forest made almost entirely of older trees, and the recent Mountain Pine Beetle outbreaks in Clear Creek County (which were much more severe outside the District's boundaries) demonstrate the vulnerability of forests of a single age to infection.
While these disturbances partially restore the natural, healthy condition of the forest, they can pose a hazard to human users of the forest. Therefore, the Jefferson Conservation District, along with many other land managers and land owners, implements practices designed to mimic natural disturbances safely, and return the forest to a healthy, resilient, diverse state without the same risks to human safety and property.
MAKING A PLAN
Bearing in mind the landowner’s goals and how their property fits within the local landscape’s ecological and historical context, JCD provides professional guidance through development of a forest management plan that inventories the current condition and provides treatment recommendations to achieve stated goals. While the individual landowner’s goals may be born out of a personal intent to steward their own land, their resource concerns are tied to forest ecosystem processes, which occur on the scale of hundreds to thousands of acres. Therefore, no single property will be able to fully address landscape-scale processes and thus forestry treatment effectiveness will increase with size; in essence, the goal is to treat as many acres as possible in a manner that is consistent with the ecology of the site.