As climate change continues to trigger dramatic changes in our forest ecosystems, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ For the Forest program is committed to producing groundbreaking scientific research on forest issues and actively restoring our forest landscapes. This State of the Forest Report for Colorado’s Roaring Fork Watershed examines trends in climatic variables and insect and disease infestations while delving deeper into topics such as the history of our local forests, the complex interactions between forest health and water provision, and the importance of prescribed fire as a management tool. It also outlines the steps ACES is taking to ensure the continued well-being of our local forests and the critical ecosystem services they provide.
The Roaring Fork Watershed comprises a sweep of elevations ranging from 5,700 feet at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers at Glenwood Springs to the alpine heights of the 14,000-foot peaks capping the upper reaches of the valley. Across this gain of over 8,000 feet in elevation, habitats include diverse sets of riparian and wetland ecosystems, mountain shrubland, and upland life zones from montane to sub-alpine to alpine conditions. A staggering 71% of the watershed’s 1,451 total square miles is forested, highlighting the importance of this critical resource. This State of the Forest Report provides in-depth discussion on how climate, beetles, and fire are impacting our forest as well as the action items ACES’ For the Forest program is taking to ensure its resiliency.
It’s impossible to address the changing state of our forest ecosystems without first addressing climate. Monitoring climatic variables such as temperature and precipitation, including the timing and extremities of certain events, provides a closer look at the root causes of many changes taking place in our forest. While snowpack levels were 78% of normal in 2013, our forests still haven’t recovered from the drought conditions of 2012. With the West predicted to get increasingly hotter and drier in the coming decades, our forests will continue to struggle.
Statewide, 16 million acres of Colorado forest have been affected by insect and disease infestations since 1996, with damage rates ranging from a few scattered trees to entire stands. Over 26,000 acres of Roaring Fork Watershed forest (29%) were impacted by insect and disease infestations in 2013. While there are currently low levels of mountain pine beetle and spruce beetle activity in our local forests, the Douglas fir beetle emerged as the second biggest threat to Roaring Fork Watershed forests. Subalpine fir decline was responsible for the most damage to local forests for the 16th consecutive year.
Another factor contributing to higher rates of insect and disease damage is lack of species and age class diversity in our forests. The underlying reason behind the even-aged forests in our area can be traced back to the late 1800’s, when demand for timber skyrocketed during Aspen’s population boom at the height of the silver mining era. Much of our watershed’s forest was clear-cut, and as a result, many trees in our area are around 125 years old.
As the American West continues to face unprecedented levels of drought, local snowpack levels and timing of runoff are monitored with ever-increasing concern. Colorado provides water to 18 states, and our high elevation forests act as reservoirs for snowpack. Water managers, farmers, and recreationists rely on steady rates of runoff to get them through the dry summer months, but factors such as frost-free days, dust on snow events, and impacts to forest health are speeding up snowmelt rates.
As increased drought conditions and warmer temperatures continue to impact the American West, hotter and more intense wildfires have become the new normal. With only 20% of Colorado’s wildland-urban interface currently developed, increased wildfire risk has moved to the forefront of community concern. In addition, many of our local forest ecosystems are fire-adapted, meaning they rely on periodic fire to reproduce, generate species and age class diversity, and maintain resilience to insect and disease infestations. However, decades of fire suppression have led to greatly increased fuel loads in our forests, which makes it impractical to allow natural ignitions to burn freely. Prescribed fire is one of the best tools land managers have in their arsenal to combat this issue.
When discussing the challenges facing our forest ecosystems, it’s also important to acknowledge the impact that humans have on our forests from both resource extraction and recreational use. Colorado’s 24.4 million acres of forest provide numerous ecosystem services for human benefit, from drinking water to wood products. The aesthetic values and spectacular scenery provided by our forests also entice recreationists and boost the local tourist economy, but increased human presence is degrading fragile forest ecosystems.
ACES’ For the Forest program is taking action to address the issues impacting our local and regional forests, from scientific monitoring to on-the-ground restoration. The Hunter-Smuggler Cooperative Plan will improve forest health, wildlife habitat, recreation, and education opportunities for 4,861 acres of federal land adjacent to Aspen. Our Forest Forecasts model visualizes current and future species distributions of 100 Western tree species under both best- and worst-case climate change scenarios. Our Forest Health Index provides an annual “report card” for our watershed’s forests, utilizing data from over 20 climatic, ecological, and socioeconomic indicators.
As our climate and forests continue to change, we face a critical choice in how we as a society will respond. ACES’ For the Forest program is committed to tackling the issues facing the health of our forests head-on, through education, scientific research, and active restoration.