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Colorado partnership weathers obstacles for sake of the forest

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Colorado’s Upper South Platte Partnership (USPP) is shifting the focus of forest management from counting acres to making acres count. The three-year-old effort in the foothills west of Denver seeks to leverage funding and expertise to implement wildfire mitigation and forest restoration treatments at a landscape scale in critically important watersheds.

However, like any effort involving multiple partners and funding sources, it wasn’t long before difficulties in the collaborative process became evident.

“In theory, everyone wants to collaborate, but when it comes to hammering out agreements and developing cutting prescriptions, the will to collaborate gets tested,” Jefferson Conservation District Staff Supervisor Garrett Stephens said. “But three years and 800 hard-won acres later, we’re all still here, so I think the will is there.”

Denver Water spearheaded the formation of USPP in the summer of 2015. Prior to that, Denver Water had individually been working with various partners including the U.S Forest Service, Colorado State Forest Service, local nonprofit Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), and Jefferson Conservation District. Denver Water’s motivation to partner with forestry agencies and organizations arose as a response to uncharacteristic wildfires in the South Platte River watershed. The 2002 Hayman Fire burned 138,000 acres, much of it at high-severity, resulting in unprecedented levels of tree mortality followed by hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sediment winding up in rivers and reservoirs. Nearly $120 million was spent on fire suppression, stabilization/recovery and property loss. Denver Water also spent $27 million on water quality treatment, sediment and debris removal, reclamation techniques and infrastructure projects. Current reservoir sediment loads still far exceed pre-fire levels.

“These fires, in part, are the result of 100 years of fire suppression and fuel build-up in dry, fire-dependent ecosystems, and we’re seeing this all across the West,” Stephens said.

Since the Hayman Fire, Denver Water and its partners have been compelled to proactively, rather than reactively, manage forests to avoid the costly negative outcomes, restore forest ecosystem function, and protect local communities.

Initially, this work occurred on federal lands, which comprise the bulk of land ownership in the watershed, but Denver Water and its partners recognized a need to address wildfire concerns on private lands as well. In 2015, Denver Water added to its pool of stakeholders by engaging The Nature Conservancy, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute (CFRI) at Colorado State University, American Forest Foundation (AFF) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Together, these nine organizations developed goals, priority treatment areas and funding strategies.

“The focus of the collaborative partnership at its inception was to build synergies and maintain an accountability and governance that was not universally held, for a variety of reasons,” NRCS Colorado State Forester Jonas Feinstein said.

Many of the early issues centered around forest ecology and restoration principles, and how to implement those principles on private lands where traditional fuels management had been the standard.

“There are different mind frames on forest management in this area on how it should be done, us included, so that is a challenge,” CSFS Northeast Area Supervisory Forester Nathan Beckman said.

Funding requirements added another layer of complexity: funders included private dollars from individual landowners (receiving forest management) and Denver Water, corporate donors via The Nature Conservancy and federal funding through NRCS. The collaborative was also able to access National Cohesive Strategy money, which broadened acceptable project outcomes beyond treating acres to include a variety of community wildfire preparation and response concerns. With all these different financial stakeholders at the table, the mission became difficult to define and maintain. “The success of a collaborative is really predicated on how focused and clear you are with the mission,” Feinstein said.

“The work to restore our forest and protect our watershed doesn’t stop,” Denver Water watershed scientist Christina Burri said. “We have to be able to work together using all different stakeholders, all different resources to make a bigger landscape-scale impact.”

In spite of early struggles and disagreements, the Upper South Platte Partnership pressed on to meet its funding commitments and acre targets while trying to maintain that landscape-scale perspective. The group also had a collection of landowners awaiting technical assistance, which was a deliverable from AFF’s outreach campaign. “We knew we had to start getting work done on the ground, and as far as our collaboration, it was going to be learn as you go,” Stephens said.

Initially, the group got bogged down in the details. “We’re getting past that and saying that the work that everybody is completing is right in the grand scheme of things, as long as we’re working towards meeting the goal of the overall partnership,” Beckman said. “It’s working really well now. I feel we’re at a turning point to achieving those goals.”

“Now, the partnership is sort of coming into an equilibrium,” Feinstein said, “and the ability for people to be focused and develop good projects and figure out what the appropriate treatment and appropriate source of funding is, I think all of those things are falling into place.”

A measure of that improving collaboration is the Oehlmann Park Project outside Conifer, Colo., where the group is planning treatments, on both (non-federal) public and private land, where everyone’s expertise and funding sources can be fully utilized. The inclusion of non-federal public lands, such as Denver Mountain Parks and Jefferson County Open Space, has been another step in USPP’s ‘all hands, all lands’ approach. Local fire protection districts, who are critical to USPP’s success within these mountain communities, are also at the table.

Results related to the partnership’s efforts at wildfire mitigation and restoration accomplishments have not yet been measured as it relates to high-intensity wildfires, but more identifiable short-term outcomes in wildlife habitat and native species diversity are being seen. The Colorado Forest Restoration Institute has been an integral part of the science delivery and project-level monitoring so that USPP can understand the outcomes of their treatments.

To date, about 800 acres have been treated and more landowners are noticing the effects and wanting to participate. USPP foresters have more interested landowners than they can handle right now, and much of that is due to the neighborhood effect. For example, a Jefferson Conservation District 60-acre, single-landowner project in 2015 has now grown to over 200 acres and includes 13 additional landowners. This project continues to expand and will eventually merge with projects Colorado State Forest Service and other partners are working on.

In addition to the rugged, steep terrain and fragmented ownership, where typical properties range in size from one to 100 acres, partners also have challenges with what to do with the logs once they’re in a pile. Because Colorado Front Range forests are dry and rocky, growing conditions are not favorable for producing a robust and valuable timber supply, and therefore, local timber industry is limited.

“Operational costs for loggers far exceed any value in the material they harvest, most of which is small diameter with limited merchantability,” Stephens said. “In many parts of the country, loggers will purchase logs from a landowner, but out here, it’s just the opposite – landowners have to come up with $1,500 to $3,000 per acre for a logger to cut and remove the wood. This is where the USPP comes in, trying to provide grants and incentives.” Wood-based bioenergy would greatly improve local utilization options, Stephens said, but Denver air quality and low natural gas prices currently pose challenges to those options.

Perseverance in the face of relentless challenge, both in the conference room and on the ground, seem to be the theme of the partnership. “It was not without some struggle,” Feinstein said, “but if that struggle had not taken place, I don’t think you would have seen the quality of projects. It would’ve been the status quo, there wouldn’t have been a standard associated with it.

“It goes back to we’re not just counting acres, we’re making acres count,” he said.

Read more on this topic in the latest edition of Forestry Notes.

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