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Building resilience in Colorado Front Range forests

Date: January 31, 2018

RMRS-GTR-373 is a guide to place-based restoration of ponderosa and dry mixed-conifer forests -- the result of a unique collaboration of authors


Background

In the mid-1800s, Colorado’s Front Range forests were more open and two to three times less dense than they are today. Today, these forests have become far more dense and crowded with smaller trees which has inherently increased vulnerability to large wildfires, insect epidemics and disease. Approximately 1.5 million acres across the Front Range have been identified as needing restoration to mitigate wildfire hazard, protect communities, and restore forest structure and composition. To address this, a new guide has been produced to be used as a framework to implement place-based approaches to forest restoration. 

Map of Colorado Front Range forests.
Map of Colorado Front Range forests.
A wide-ranging group of collaborators from federal agencies, environmental non-profits, and academia, joined together to address this issue and create this synthesis of information specific to restoring these forests.

By using historical forest conditions to help guide the “desired conditions” of these forests, GTR-373 helps managers to identify areas that could benefit from restoration. It also provides an overarching framework for how to implement place-based approaches to forest restoration based on information specific to the Front Range. A companion document is also available - Visualization of Heterogeneous Forest Structures Following Treatment in the Southern Rocky Mountains (RMRS-GTR-365) allows users to “see” what the recommended treatments may look like at the stand level.

Restoration in Colorado Front Range ponderosa and dry mixed-conifer forests should result in reduction of forest densities and surface and crown fuels, enhancement of spatial heterogeneity across scales, and retention of drought-and fire-tolerant species, old trees, and structures important for wildlife. While restoration treatments are not expected to recreate the diversity of structure in the 1860s, the hope is that by pushing the stand structure of these forests back towards past conditions, they will be more resilient for the future.

Key Findings

  • Historical stand reconstruction shows that the ponderosa and mixed-conifer forests were more open and grassy than they are now, with mixed sized trees clumped together. Over time, these forests have become dense and crowded with smaller trees which increases their vulnerability to large and severe wildfires, insect epidemics, and disease.

  • Based on factors such as elevation and slope, the Front Range is characterized by developing a mix of low, moderate, and high-severity fire effects, making for a mixed-severity fire regime historically.

  • The structure and composition of the Front Range forests is shaped at multiple scales by interactions of topography, natural disturbances such as fire, and forest developmental processes. This serves as a foundation for identifying priority areas and designing restoration projects across scales. 

Desired forest condition for ponderosa pine forests in the Colorado Front Range.
Desired forest condition for ponderosa pine forests in the Colorado Front Range.

Featured Publications

Addington, Robert N. ; Aplet, Gregory H. ; Battaglia, Mike A. ; Briggs, Jennifer S. ; Brown, Peter M. ; Cheng, Antony S. ; Dickinson, Yvette ; Feinstein, Jonas A. ; Pelz, Kristen A. ; Regan, Claudia M. ; Thinnes, Jim ; Truex, Rick ; Fornwalt, Paula J. ; Gannon, Benjamin ; Julian, Chad W. ; Underhill, Jeffrey L. ; Wolk, Brett , 2018
Ziegler, Justin Paul ; Hoffman, Chad ; Battaglia, Mike A. ; Mell, William , 2017
Tinkham, Wade T. ; Dickinson, Yvette ; Hoffman, Chad M. ; Battaglia, Mike A. ; Ex, Seth ; Underhill, Jeffrey , 2017
Brown, Peter M. ; Battaglia, Mike A. ; Fornwalt, Paula J. ; Gannon, Benjamin ; Huckaby, Laurie Kay Stroh ; Julian, Chad ; Cheng, Antony S. , 2015
Dickinson, Yvette L. ; Addington, Rob ; Aplet, Greg ; Babler, Mike ; Battaglia, Mike A. ; Brown, Peter ; Cheng, Tony ; Cooley, Casey ; Edwards, Dick ; Feinstein, Jonas ; Fornwalt, Paula J. ; Gibbs, Hal ; Matonis, Megan ; Pelz, Kristen A. ; Regan, Claudia , 2014


National Strategic Program Areas: 
Resource Management and Use
National Priority Research Areas: 
Forest Disturbances; Localized Needs
RMRS Science Program Areas: 
Forest and Woodland Ecosystems
RMRS Strategic Priorities: 
Disturbance Ecology; Resilient Landscapes
Principal Investigators: 
Principal Investigators - External: 
Rob Addington - The Nature Conservancy - Principal Investigator
Tony Cheng - Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University - Principal Investigator
Jonas Feinstein - Natural Resources Conservation Service - Principal Investigator
Greg Aplet - The Wilderness Society - Principal Investigator
Forest Service Partners: 
Primary Authors:
Kristen Pelz, Rocky Mountain Research Station
Claudia Regan, Rocky Mountain Region
Rick Truex, Rocky Mountain Region

Contributing Authors:
Paula Fornwalt, Rocky Mountain Research Station
Jeff Underhill, Rocky Mountain Region
External Partners: 
Jennifer S. Briggs
Primary Authors:
Jennifer Briggs, U.S. Geological Survey
Peter M. Brown, Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research
Yvette Dickinson, Michigan Technological University
Jim Thinnes, Society of American Foresters

Contributing Authors:
Benjamin Gannon, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University
Chad Julian, Southern Rockies Fire Science Network at Colorado State University
Brett Wolk, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University
Research Location: 
Colorado Front Range