Fixing Summit County forests with the help of ‘citizen science’
November 4, 2017
The pine beetle came to Summit County in 2005, turning scores of trees red and creeping higher up the mountainsides each year.
Twelve years later, nearly every stand of lodgepole pines has been affected, and they stand in gray, dead clusters, creating headaches for firefighters, forest managers and concerned residents. It's been the same story through most of the High Country.
On Friday, more than 30 representatives from forestry groups across the state gathered in Frisco for the annual Colorado Forest Collaboratives Summit to share how they are still trying to heal their damaged forests.
It's an uphill battle, and will likely remain so for at least a generation. But if there's a silver lining, attendees said, it's the level of engagement and cooperation that the beetle scourge has inspired among diverse groups across the High Country.
"The bark beetle just kept chewing at the trees, moving to higher elevations, and pretty soon many of our forests were a lot different. … we really didn't know what to do about what was happening to our backyards," recalled Howard Hallman, president of the Forest Health Task Force.
As wildfires continue to burn hotter, bigger and more frequently across Colorado, firefighting costs have been swallowing up more and more of the U.S. Forest's Service budget. At the same time, forest remediation needs are more urgent than ever.
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But with the agency's resources being pulled in both directions, groups like the FHTF have been stepping up to help out, providing valuable "citizen science" on the forests that helps speed along thinning projects and cultivates buy-in from communities.
This year, volunteers with the FHTF and Friends of the Dillon Ranger District have been conducting stand exams in more than 60 spots around Summit County, helping the Forest Service identify the parts of the forest most urgently in need of work.
That extra data has saved the Forest Service time and money at a time when it is desperately short on both. Recently, it helped speed along a remediation project near Keystone.
"We did (that project) pretty quickly and in efficient time, and that was because we frontloaded it with help from folks being out on the ground taking the data for us," USFS deputy district ranger Adam Bianchi told the group on Friday.
The Forest Service provides the volunteers with training and gear, then sends them fanning out across the forest to check up on the trees. In total, the group has checked more than 200 plots of forest.
"The idea is that in the future as we continue to grow, the group will help identify and help us figure out where on the district and where in the community we should be focusing on," Hallman said. "Where is the highest priority?"
Residents are sometimes wary of thinning and mitigation activities, especially when it means cutting trees near their homes. That was especially the case in the early days of the beetle crisis, but Bianchi said people are starting to come to terms with the fact that the forest is sick, and sometimes it needs bitter medicine.
A benefit of the citizen stand exams, Bianchi said, is that volunteers can educate themselves on forest health issues in the field and return to the community as ambassadors for the Forest Service.
"It went from, 'What the heck is the Forest Service doing?' to, 'Alright, this makes sense,'" he said.
During Friday's meeting, other foresters shared stories of how citizen data sets are helping them communicate better with the communities they serve and streamline projects.
On the Uncompahgre Plateau in southwest Colorado, for instance, the Colorado Forestry Institute has high school interns gathering data in the field. A similar program in Pagosa Springs recently enlisted students to conduct stand exams and help sell the community on an important thinning project at the edge of town.
There are some who are concerned that citizen science lacks the rigor and reliability of the work done by professionals. But Aaron Kimple of the Mountain Studies Institute, who worked with the Pagosa Springs students, said its value is twofold.
"You have to think of citizen science in multiple components: one is the data, and the other is learning and education," he told the group. "It depends on what you're hoping to get out of it."
And even if the data produced isn't fit for academic research, it can still be good enough for project monitoring and management purposes.
Carol Ekarius, of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, told the group that given the scope of the problem, forest and watershed managers need all the help they can get.
"There's so much work to be done that if we get willing people to continue carrying the water, so to speak, we're making progress. We're not going to fix any of these problems in anybody's lifetime in this room, but it is a matter of continuing to move the needle."