Opinion | Piehl and Hallman: Building better forests | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Piehl and Hallman: Building better forests

Brad Piehl and Howard Hallman
Guest column

The U.S. Forest Service has a tough job. They are under-staffed, under-funded and lacking in resources — yet we expect them to keep our forests beautiful, healthy, safe, open for recreation and protected against numerous threats. Above all else we expect the Forest Service to save us from wildfires that threaten our homes and communities. So far, so good — as we have recently experienced, the Forest Service working closely with local agencies, is very good at fighting wildfires.

We have chosen to live primarily in wood structures, in a world of trees, where wildfire is an increasing danger. The backbone of our economy is recreation, tourism and construction — every year there are more residents, tourists, homes and businesses. Yet, whether we fully comprehend it or not, our lifestyles and livelihoods are becoming increasingly perilous and our homes less secure due to the threat of wildfire.

As our climate becomes hotter and drier, the danger of larger and more destructive wildfires increases. It may be only a matter of time and wind direction before we see significant wildfire damage in Summit County. The U.S. Forest Service must do what it can to protect our homes and valuable resources against this significant existing and future risk.

This summer's Buffalo Mountain Fire was stopped by a combination of quick and decisive fire suppression aided by a fuel break that was put in place following the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Fuel breaks reduce forest density (fuel for wildfires) near neighborhoods and provide zones where firefighters can operate safely. Fuel breaks can be strategically located and appropriately configured to provide some protection against wildfire while maintaining desirable ecological conditions. Properly managed, fuel breaks can be areas of beauty and biological diversity.

Our high-elevation forests in Summit County are constantly responding to varying conditions. Change may occur slowly over decades and centuries as tree species mature and are replaced through succession by other species or younger trees, or rapidly through wildfire and disease. In the last 10-plus years we have watched our forests change in a just a few years as a large percentage of our mature lodgepole pine succumbed to the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Some areas of extensive beetle kill are recovering and evolving without human intervention, but some have been actively managed. In some areas, the Forest Service has removed dead trees to reduce forest biomass (wildfire fuel) and thus reduce extreme wildfire behavior.

At higher elevations, the spruce-fir forests that appear static have serious threats like spruce beetle, wildfire and climate change. Although there is not scientific certainty as to what will happen, as the climate gets warmer and drier, we would expect that the spruce-fir zone will be reduced in size due to more frequent disturbances (wildfire, insects, etc.) and migrating higher in elevation. We have already seen disturbances such as the spruce beetle epidemic in the San Juan mountains, which was followed by the second largest wildfire in Colorado history (West Fork Fire of 2012).

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A future vision for Summit County's forests is one that has lower wildfire hazards, increased diversity, and protection of ecological, recreational, esthetic and watershed values, as well as our homes. In other words, manage for the best future outcomes given changing conditions and limited resources. This means greater diversity of age, species and forest structure, with more variability over the landscape.

The Forest Health Task Force meets monthly to discuss the future of Summit County's forests. We are always looking for fresh perspectives. Our group includes members of the federal and state forest services, county government, environmental and industry groups, and most importantly regular citizens, many of whom volunteer to monitor forest conditions. Our mission is to connect communities and forest through public participation, education and citizen science.

Do you have ideas on how the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado State Forest Service and Summit County government can improve the management of our forests? Come join the discussion. Our next meeting is Oct. 17, 12-1:30 p.m. in the Mt. Royal Room, County Commons in Frisco. The topic is Summit County Climate Action and Forests. The discussion will be led by representatives of High Country Conservation and Summit County Open Space & Trails.

Brad Piehl and Howard Hallman live in Summit County, where they serve on the Forest Health Task Force.