Most of us take for granted how important forests are to our survival. In the 80’s, pop icons like Sting and Bono shouted from the rooftops, “Save the world’s rainforests, our planet’s lungs!” Not since the battles with loggers over the spotted owl have western forest issues moved into the public’s top tier of environmental priorities.
But in this new era of climate change, society is finally realizing that forests provide a variety of ecosystem services critical to our well-being. Whether it be more esoteric services such as nutrient cycling, climate regulation, erosion control, soil formation and water regulation or the more overt services such as provision of raw materials, food, and recreation, forests are an ecological foundation for plant, animal and human lives.
Nationally, forests have experienced unprecedented change in the last few decades. Natural climate variability, global climate change, and local human activities within and at the margins of the forest are playing a part in this. Change has already come in the form of tree mortality and insect outbreaks, stand age and composition, and larger and more intense wildfires. More development continues to enter the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) – where human structures intermingle with forest ecosystems. Each year, up to 70,000 wildfires ravage millions of acres, burn thousands of homes, and cost dozens of lives.
More dramatic changes will likely take place as the climate change projected for the 21st century unfolds. Adequately understanding and responding to these changes will be a critical challenge for conservation and resource management in the coming decades.
In Colorado, warmer and drier conditions brought on by climate change have sustained unprecedented insect and disease infestations in our conifer forests. The mountain pine beetle epidemic that has exceeded anything in the state’s recorded history is finally declining because the beetles have consumed most of their food – ponderosa and lodgepole pine trees. However, we now have new bark beetle epidemic – the spruce beetle. Last year, the acreage impacted by the spruce beetle surpassed that of the mountain pine beetle.
Here in the Roaring Fork Watershed, our forests are the engine that drives our tourism-based economy. Now is the time for a resurgence of action to promote and protect the health and resiliency of our forests.
This State of the Forest report is a sort of “report card” on our valley’s ecosystem health. It examines trends in climatic variables and insect and disease infestations, and explains what citizens and land managers can do to be a part of the solution. In this report we also introduce the Forest Health Index, which provides comparative analysis of current and past conditions of our local forest. It is our hope that this report and the Forest Health Index will generate discussion and help inform adaptive management eff orts to create, among other things, greater forest resiliency, improved wildlife habitat and reduced wildfire danger in our valley.
We hope these eff orts will help inform policy that promotes managing for healthy forests by federal, state and local governments as well as NGOs and private citizens living in and around the WUI. While some forests should be protected and left alone, managing for healthy forests in the WUI will promote clean air, clean water, protection of wildlife habitat, enhancement of recreational opportunities, reduced risk of wildfire, and improved local economies.
Hopefully, this combination of protection and management will ensure that our forests provide ecological and human benefits for generations to come. Sting and Bono would be proud!