Colorado’s Big Thompson Conservation District is using a technical assistance grant from the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to grow its Healthy Forest Initiative program with new staff and new projects.
Designed to add capacity at the local level to provide more assistance to landowners, the grant allowed the district to hire Matthew Marshall in 2018 as a full-time forester to serve Larimer and Weld Counties. By focusing on forest management that will provide a multi-resource benefit, Marshall has identified forestry projects that can carry the district into 2023.
“Ecological restoration is the key to returning Colorado’s forest to a healthy, resilient and functional state,” Marshall said. “By returning forest densities back to historical reference conditions, we are able to increase understory plant productivity, improve wildlife habitat, and mitigate adverse effects from severe wildfire, such as decreased water quality and soil health.”
However, the district has hurdles to overcome.
“We’re limited on contractors around here, so we need to work through that,” Big Thompson Conversation District Manager Larry Lempka said. “There’s some growing pains, so we have to start small. We had to make a huge paradigm shift in people’s attitudes with cutting down forests and thinning acres. It’s going to take us a little time to get the education out there.”
In the past three years of implementing the initiative, about 380 acres have been treated. With Marshall, Big Thompson Conversation District hopes to treat 400-500 acres per year.
There was a six-month delay in getting projects up and running due to a lack of forestry contractors; however, with Marshall at the helm, contractors are now in place and 320 acres are under contract for treatment in the coming months. Forest management plans are being put in place, tree inventory is being conducted, and contractors will remove the trees.
“We’re starting to put a collaboration together with the state and federal agencies,” Lempka said.
The district has aligned with partners like the Nature Conservancy, Colorado State Forest Service, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy, various watershed groups, as well as NRCS and the U.S. Forest Service.
Marshall has visited colleges, high schools and elementary schools in the area to educate students on the benefits of bringing forests back to natural conditions.
“If it weren’t for NACD and this technical assistance grant, we would not have been able to grow the district and fund other programs and events,” Lempka said.