Colorado conservation districts are expanding forestry capacity

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Conservation districts on Colorado’s Front Range are bolstering forestry programs by increasing the pace and scale of private lands education and on-the-ground practice implementation through ecology-based, multi-resource benefit forestry. Landowner interest is at an all-time high and district foresters are struggling to keep up.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Jefferson Conservation District Supervisory Conservation Forester Garrett Stephens said.

The story of this growth began in 2007 when Jonas Feinstein, now the NRCS State Conservation Forester in Colorado, was working at Jefferson Conservation District under the District Conservation Technician (DCT) program, created through an NRCS and Colorado State Conservation Board grant. “During my time with the conservation district, I saw an opportunity to engage landowners in a novel way by patiently walking, talking, listening, and guiding landowners to understand their forest resource concerns in the context of landscape ecology and land use history, as opposed to a single resource benefit, or an individual tree health approach,” Feinstein said.

“Since the 1988 fires in Yellowstone, forest and fire ecologists have come to understand that the problems we see in the woods are the result of changes in the way the entire forest functions, due namely to 100 years of fire suppression and simply more people living in the woods,” Stephens said.

From this perspective—a landscape-scale problem needs a landscape-scale solution—Feinstein urges landowners to think bigger, managing their entire forest and beyond to include public and private land neighbors alike. It is generally agreed that the scale and intensity of forest management needs to match the ecological need. In addition to treating more acres, he also encouraged landowners to cut a lot more trees than they were used to. Current forest conditions are very dense relative to pre-1860s landscapes where frequent fire maintained a more patchy and diverse mosaic of forest conditions. Not only are those conditions more consistent with the local ecology, they also significantly reduce potential wildfire behavior, which is normally the landowners’ top resource concern.

Interest and acceptance of this new approach required a shift from single resource thinking (thinning just for fire) to multi-resource thinking (restoring diversity of forest structure, wildlife habitat and native plants, and mitigating fire potential under even severe fire weather conditions, all toward improved watershed resilience). Operationally, landowners were accustomed to cutting far fewer trees and to doing the work themselves at a rate of one to two acres per year. The multi-resource approach meant cutting more trees on more acres and requiring landowners to hire professional logging contractors that could safely and efficiently harvest and utilize the logs. Some landowners were reluctant at first because logging is messy, but after the first couple of years, the grasses and flowers came back and many appreciated their new landscape.

Eventually, landowner demand exceeded Jefferson Conservation District capacity, and through the DCT program, conservation districts were able to hire two additional foresters in 2014. Today, Jefferson Conservation District maintains four full-time staff: three foresters and one urban agriculture/noxious weed coordinator.

“In the past, there was a missing link between the landowner and desired outcome on the ground. Both Jonas and Joseph Hansen, my predecessor, recognized that need to provide more hands-on, technical assistance, because landowners don’t have the time and resources to take a 50-page conservation plan and successfully implement it,” Stephens said.

Jefferson Conservation District’s growth encouraged the Fort Collins and Big Thompson Conservation Districts to hire a shared forester through the DCT program in 2016, which then turned into two foresters in 2017, one for each conservation district.

Earlier this year, the Longmont and Boulder Valley Conservation Districts acquired an NACD Technical Assistance grant to house a forester in the Longmont field office.

“It’s been a lot of fun collaborating with and adding to our conservation district forester ranks,” Stephens said. “The strong partnership with NRCS has been critical to the success of these districts as a whole and to addressing resource concerns in a meaningful way. Farm bill funding in particular has provided the much-needed technical assistance and landowner incentives, without which this work could not happen.”

Colorado conservation districts try to leverage these funds against landowner contributions and state and private grants to stretch every dollar.

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

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