It started with a call from a concerned landowner living on Pine Country Lane, nestled in the foothills just west of Denver. The landscape spread out before them was scarred from previous high-severity fires, the homeowners told their local Conservation District.
Their home was sitting at the top of a hill in a tinderbox surrounded by dense forests dying from bark beetle and tussock moth invasions. Decades of fire suppression has altered forests on the Front Range. These forests were historically adapted to frequent low-severity fire and, with suppression, have become fuel-dense and are now comprised of a different species mix.
That call was the catalyst to one of the most exciting restoration projects on the Colorado Front Range.
Natural Resources Conservation Service Colorado state forester Jonas Feinstein, partnership-builder extraordinaire, clued me into this exciting project. Feinstein likened modern forestry, within the context of climate change, to a choose-your-own adventure novel. A dead (or ecologically departed) forest cannot adapt; we need to “restore the forest to a healthier, more complex condition so that it can live to choose its own adventure in the future.”
The goal now is to restore ponderosa pine and dry-mixed conifer forests to a more historic state, made of tree groups separated by open grass-forb-shrub areas, so that these forests have a better chance at future survival. Not only does this style of multi-resource restoration and management reduce fire risk and improve forest health, but it is also a huge draw for wildlife.
Feinstein proceeded to tell me how the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station’s recent publication, General Technical Report 310, Restoring Composition and Structure in Southwestern Frequent-Fire Forests, served as a guidebook for his work in the state. Captivated by Feinstein’s commitment to the land and his stories, I was convinced that I needed to visit these projects and help tell their story to a broader audience.
As a result, I found myself on a field trip with landowners from Pine Country Lane and adjacent communities. The landowners were brought together by Joseph Hansen, Jefferson Conservation District’s Conservation Forester, who is totally dedicated to ecologically-based forest restoration. Hansen and Feinstein wanted to show us what implementing ponderosa pine landscape restoration actually looked like on a demonstration site.
Sitting on a promontory overlooking vast sweeps of forest, the discussion focused on the many benefits of this project, especially wildland fire protection. They had learned of GTR-310, and knew there was a scientific basis for what was being recommended. As Richard Reynolds, research wildlife biologist at the Rocky Mountain Research Station, stepped forward to answer a question related to the benefits to wildlife, the owners got even more excited. Learning about this type of landscape restoration from the scientist who wrote the book seemed to validate their decisions to be part of the project.
It was really inspiring to spend time with these landowners – each in a different stage of project participation, from planning to complete – hearing their thoughts on why they want to participate or how they feel now that the work is done. Nancy and Ed Zorensky own the property on which we are standing. They moved here from New York in the 1970s and embody the Colorado lifestyle.
“It has been an evolution of understanding,” Nancy Zorensky said. “We will miss the trees, but overall, we know it [the forest] is healthier.”
Neighboring property owner, Beverly Mozzetti concurred.
“We want to do whatever is right for our property as long as science has said it is what is best for the land,” she said. “We are doing this for the next generation.”
Landowner Julie Sobota said, “We live here because of the landscape…now that we have done this we are seeing butterflies and birds like never before, and this is just the first year.”
A goal is to work to tie together across landscapes (ponderosa pine and dry-mixed conifer forests) with strategic and contiguous treatments. This means that while they are doing this work on roughly 1,230 acres of private land, the hope is that other neighboring property owners will also be able to treat their lands following the same underlying principles.
“We are investing and managing for an authentic altered landscape that will pay ecological dividends for decades,” said Hansen.
Collaboration across agencies and ownerships in these mosaic forests is key to successful landscape restoration in the Colorado Front Range. Seeing science being used as the underlying basis for land management decision making has built trust with the public. The restoration projects are clearly more than just a fire treatment and the locals are beginning to understand that. As Feinstein says, “this is forestry because of ecology; not forestry in consideration of ecology.”
GTR-310 science delivery videos are available online.
This post is part of a series featuring the Forest Service’s work on restoration across the country. Forest Service Research & Development is celebrating 100 years of service and is proud to provide science in support of national restoration objectives.