For 13 years Boulder County Parks and Open Space has worked to restore the 15,000 acres of forest it manages to pre-settlement levels by using prescribed burns to thin overcrowded stands of trees and clear out underbrush.
The current restoration project at Hall Ranch Open Space is set to remove 150 trees per acre across a 15-acre patch of forest outside of Lyons. Once completed, Parks and Open space can safely reintroduce fire into the ecosystem due to the ponderosa pine’s fire-resistant bark and lack of low-hanging limbs.
With less competition for water and the burned underbrush acting as a fertilizer for the remaining trees, the forest not only becomes more resilient to wildfire, but also insect infestation, disease and floods.
While this practice appears to work, making up for decades of mismanagement by promoting age, size and species diversity, the process has been slow. Since Boulder County adopted the modern management practices in 2006, Parks and Open Space has restored 2,000 acres of forest.
In large part, the pace is due to a lack of resources. For example, to remove the 2,300 trees proposed in the Hall Ranch project, the county only has 12 men armed with chainsaws and all-terrain vehicles.
“The biggest hindrance to this work is cost,” said Stefan Reinold, the senior forestry resource specialist for Boulder County Parks and Open Space. “Any of our properties that we can access through existing roads or gentle topography we were able to do ourselves with hand crews (from the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office Fire Crew). It’s not easy but we can do it. However, once you throw slope into the equation, it starts to get really difficult and really expensive.”
Eighty to 90 acres of forest slated for restoration on Heil Valley Ranch are on a steep embankment covered in loose rocky soil. To safely remove the tons of dead trees and underbrush, Parks and Open Space was forced to contact a helicopter logging company.
However, even if Parks and Open Space was allocated additional funds to expand its operations, ensuring comprehensive coverage would be nearly impossible with the vast majority of forests located on state, federal, and private property.
Even with the U.S. Forest Service beginning the massive Forsythe II Project, which will thin forests on 2,460 acres of the Roosevelt National Forest between Nederland and Gross Reservoir, Tom Veblen, a professor of geology at the University of Colorado Boulder, said the efforts to restore forest health is not nearly commensurate to the size of the problem — especially when you consider the effects of climate change.
“If you look at the pace and scale of restoration work compared to the size of the wildfires we are experiencing these days, the fires are an order of magnitude larger than the kinds of work that we’re doing in management,” he said. “It’s kind of a race against time. We had a great winter and early summer in terms of precipitation this year, which has helped us dodge the wildfire bullet on the Front Range, but at some point that all is going to catch up to us. Wet springs make plants grow, which just creates more stuff to burn in these unmanaged areas. It’s not if, it’s when.”
The forests around Ralph Price and Longmont reservoirs and north of Boulder are of particular concern.
“We’re concerned about the whole St. Vrain watershed,” Boulder County’s Reinold said. “If a big fire ignites in that area around the Ralph Price and Longmont reservoirs, Longmont takes a hit from a water standpoint, and we also lose homes and forest.”
Furthermore, due to the effects of the warming climate in Boulder County, should Boulder County’s ponderosa pine forests burn, they are unlikely to return. According to a study coauthored by Veblen in 2018, titled “Evidence for declining forest resilience to wildfires under climate change,” once one of these highly destructive fires ignites, fueled by underbrush and dead or sick trees, it torches the ponderosa pine’s fire-resistant bark, it kills the tree and stops it from seeding, greatly hampering the regeneration process.
For example, nearly 20 years after the Walker Ranch Fire, that burned more than 1,000 acres, the ponderosa pines are not growing back and the forest is receding,
“In most parts of the Walker Ranch burn area we are not seeing any considerable number of seedlings regenerating,” Veblen said. “At the drier, lower elevations, there is frequently no tree regeneration.”
While Reinold suggested any lost ponderosa could be replaced by another species of tree to maintain Boulder County’s forests, he stressed the danger wildfires present to the city of Boulder.
“I’d be really concerned about fire in the city of Boulder itself,” he said. “If a fire gets started above the foothills, with the right winds, Boulder could be in the same situation as those in Paradise, California. I don’t think people really put that together.”
Though Parks and Open Space completed the $1.3 million Betasso Preserve fuel reduction project in 2016, which created a fuel break along the ridge and thinned forests throughout the 189-acre preserve, Reinold said there is only so much the department can do because there is only so much land it is permitted to work on and it only has so many resources.
Mitigate your risk
Landowners can find information on how to mitigate fire risk on their property by contacting Boulder County’s Wildfire Partners or visiting its website at wildfirepartners.org/our-program.