Hotter temperatures, shorter winters, more beetles, larger wildfires and dwindling fiscal resources: This is the sobering future in store for U.S. forests, according to two government officials.
In a meeting Thursday with the editorial board of The Durango Herald, Harris Sherman, undersecretary of natural resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Mark Stiles, San Juan National Forest supervisor, laid out the climate and budgetary challenges woodlands in Colorado – and the United States – are up against.
Before 2000, Sherman said, the annual acreage consumed nationally by wildfires averaged less than 5 million acres. Now, 5 million to 10 million-acre annual losses are considered normal, and soon, seasons of well more than 10 million charred acres won’t raise an eyebrow.
The rather bleak assessment was equalled, however, by a commitment to preserve and protect.
Forests are an essential national treasure worth saving, Sherman said. They serve as a recreation outlet, timber source, potable water source, refuge for endangered species and sequestration sink for carbon dioxide.
“It’s our job to preserve those functions,” he said.
Despite the obstacles, Sherman and Stiles were encouraged that the views of politicians and citizens appear to be shifting for the better.
State and federal officials are putting controlled burns and mitigation back on the agenda after decades of prioritizing fire suppression.
With help from awareness groups such as Firewise of Southwest Colorado, homeowners are taking steps to pre-emptively isolate their homes from flammable fuels.
The environmentalist and logging communities, once at odds and mired in legal disputes, now are collaborating because both factions realize that climate change is a foe that transcends ideological differences.
And ridges covered by swaths of dead spruce and Ponderosa pines, while unsightly and prone to erosion, could be a source for building materials and biomass energy.
Warmer, less reliable weather is problematic on multiple levels, Stiles said. Less snowfall and earlier melt mean a lower moisture content for forest wood. That makes it more susceptible to fires and beetle infestations. In previous years, winters usually were cold enough to kill enough beetle larvae that trees could adequately expel the survivors. But they are unable to handle an onslaught of successive generations invading at once.
“Almost certainly, drought is related,” Stiles said, referring to the massive spruce die-off atop Wolf Creek Pass.
Poor land-management policies only compound the problem, Sherman said. Fire suppression disrupted long-standing burn patterns and gave rise to “thick, monolithic” forests choked by underbrush. In addition, subdivisions popping up along the wilderness-urban interface create more vulnerable homes for fire crews.
Not all the news was grim. Sherman and Stiles were optimistic that climate change could spur innovative solutions.
A project launched in Pagosa Springs in June will thin forests on public lands and use the resulting biomass to create electricity for 30 percent of the city via a process called gasification.
“Colorado prizes innovation and creativity,” Sherman said. “It is poised to be part of the solution.”