Forest Health Partnership tours Little Sand Fire area

By Lindsey Bright
Staff Writer

The Upper San Juan Mixed-Conifer Working Group has been going through some changes as it moves into Phase 2 — increasing education and outreach as well as starting up monitoring programs and seeking the grants to enable that.

One change involves a change in name to San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership.

“This name is more inclusive of the whole concept,” said Marcie Bidwell of Mountain Studies Institute (MSI), adding, “The watershed and water supply are companions to forest priorities.”

Bidwell has stepped up to take on a larger role with the partnership and MSI has become the sponsor organization for the partnership. Also, the partnership wants to include the entire headwaters area for monitoring.

The first year of the group’s existence was spent educating stakeholders in the group, then prioritizing areas for treatment.

Last Thursday, members of this newly-named group viewed the aftereffects of the Little Sand Fire, and were informed about renewable forest energy efforts in the Williams Creek area as part of the Pagosa Area Biomass Long-term Stewardship contract. Altogether, 17 people attended, representing U.S. Forest Service, Colorado State Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, landowners, Indian affairs and various nonprofits.

“It was a good, diverse, representative group,” Bidwell said.

The field trip had a greater purpose than merely looking at the effects of wildfire on the forest landscape.

“The fire presented an opportunity to look at wildfire as a potential tool (for forest health management),” Bidwell said.

The Little Sand Fire, Bidwell explained, burned at different rates and different intensities than experts had expected.

“Overall, the fire burned more moderately than expected,” Bidwell said.

Group members, when viewing these areas, Bidwell said, asked two main questions: What can we learn from observation? What might we learn going forward, after a treatment?

First, Bidwell said, the group will ponder the ways management and community learned from the Little Sand Fire, and what they learned.

Second, wildfire as a tool to be monitored has not been thought out yet. When a prescribed burn or thinning technique is executed, a monitoring process follows that includes looking at the change in canopy, composition structure of the forest, and habitat for the wildlife.

If this type of monitoring were to also take place for wildfires, another question arises: Who would the partnership’s partners be?

Bidwell said two people in attendance on the tour were helpful in relation to this question: Dr. Tony Cheng, director of Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, and Peter Brown, director of Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research. Cheng is involved in working with forest health collaboratives across the state of Colorado and can provide ideas concerning how other groups grappled with a problem and how the local area landscape and ecology differs. Brown is an expert in dendrochronology.

“Tony, in his role as an advisor to the governor on forest health issues, wanted a better look at what is going on in the Pagosa Springs area,” Thurman Wilson, one of the partnership’s facilitators, said.

The partnership has received funding for the upcoming year from the Southwest Water Conservancy District, via a grant. The partnership also hopes to receive matching Title 3 funds from Archuleta County.

Some of the partnership’s educational and outreach goals include educating the public about the unique qualified and historic range of variation of conditions of mixed conifer forests; creating awareness that current forest conditions are not in a natural state; communicating that future trends indicate the current state of the forest and that a trajectory towards unmanaged wildfire could be catastrophic for local communities; preparing communities for and increasing awareness of forest resilience and what actions are necessary to move towards a condition of resilience; generating discussion and dialog regarding potential actions and treatment options; and activating volunteer groups to aid in education for resource management and monitoring.

Bidwell says the partnership is planning community events and field trips for the upcoming year.

This story was posted on November 19, 2012.