Building a better forest

Rash of summer wildfires highlights the importance of proactive forest management to protect watersheds.

January 19, 2018 | By: Jay Adams

Editors note: This story has been updated from its original publish date of Jan. 19, 2018.

 

As firefighters work to knock out major wildfires burning across Colorado during the summer of 2020, efforts are also underway to improve forest health and reduce the risk of high-intensity forest fires.

One effort is called From Forests to Faucets, a forest management partnership between Denver Water and the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service that began in 2010. The partnership also includes the Colorado State Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

As of July 2020, the partners have invested nearly $60 million on forest management projects. So far over 100,000 acres of forests have been treated in areas where Denver Water collects water. An additional 1.4 million new trees have been planted in areas ravaged by wildfires.

Ponsse tree harvester work on cutting down trees.
A Ponsse tree harvester works to thin a 40-acre section of forest in Breckenridge in August 2020. Photo credit: Denver Water.

 

From Forests to Faucets is a collaborative approach to keep our forests and watersheds healthy,” said Christina Burri, watershed scientist at Denver Water. “Our drinking water starts as rain and snow that passes through mountains and trees, so it’s important to take care of our forests.”

 

From Forests to Faucets began in response to the costly impacts of the 1996 Buffalo Creek and the 2002 Hayman wildfires. The two fires destroyed 150,000 acres in Denver Water’s South Platte River watershed.

From Forests to Faucets began as a result of the devastating impacts of the Hayman and Buffalo Creek wildfires. Photo courtesy: Coalition for the Upper South Platte.
The Hayman Wildfire burned 138,000 acres around Denver Water’s Cheesman Reservoir in 2002. Photo credit: Coalition for the Upper South Platte.

 

After the fires, flash floods raced through the burn areas and cost Denver Water more than $27 million to repair infrastructure, remove sediment and restore land around key drainages that flow into Strontia Springs and Cheesman reservoirs.

“Those big fires taught us that investing in healthy forests is less expensive than dealing with the after-effects of a catastrophic wildfire,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO/manager, Denver Water. “When trees are destroyed, more sediment flows down the mountains, which causes water quality problems,dam safety concerns and takes up space in our reservoirs.”

Debris filled Strontia Springs Reservoir.
Debris filled Strontia Springs Reservoir after the Buffalo Creek fire and flood of 1996. Photo credit: Denver Water.

 

Forest thinning treatments funded by the partnership are done in Denver Water’s priority watersheds known as “zones of concern”, across 10 counties in north-central Colorado. The “zones of concern” are sections of overly-dense forestland that are vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires.

If a large fire broke out in a zone, it would have devastating impacts to Denver Water dams, reservoirs, pipes and streams that supply water to the Front Range.

“Over the past 100 years, Colorado’s forests have become overly dense which makes them more prone to catastrophic wildfires,” said Brian Banks, the U.S. Forest Service District Ranger for the Pike/San Isabel National Forest. “When we thin the forests, we are restoring the land to how it looked before people settled here.”

Forest restoration involves three main steps: strategically cutting down trees to create more space and lowers the risk of fires in tree tops; selectively removing trees to reduce the amount of wood available as fuel for fires; and conducting prescribed burns to recycle ground fuels into nutrients which promote plant diversity.

Watch a video with Brian Banks explaining forest health:

“The goal of our treatments isn’t to stop fires, it’s to prevent large catastrophic wildfires,” said Erin Connelly, Pike/San Isabel National Forest supervisor, U.S. Forest Service. “Fires are an important part of the ecosystem, so we want to treat the forests to promote smaller, more frequent fires and prevent large ones that have devastating impacts on communities, wildlife, recreation and water supply.”

Watch a video of slash pile burning in the Pike National Forest:

 

Adding the Colorado State Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service allows forest managers to conduct treatments on non-federal and private lands as well as national forests.

“Forestlands cover all land ownerships across Colorado, and when a fire breaks out, it simply doesn’t respect those boundaries,” said Scott Woods, watershed management forester, Colorado State Forest Service. “It’s important that all landowners work together to manage our forests and reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires.”

More than 1.4 million trees have been planted in burn areas as part of From Forest to Faucets.
More than 1.4 million trees have been planted in burn areas as part of From Forest to Faucets since 2010. Photo credit: Denver Water.

 

Working together serves as a win-win for all four partners.

“By combining resources, we’re able to treat more acres than we could on our own,” said Brian Ferebee, Rocky Mountain regional forester, U.S. Forest Service. “By building healthy forests, we’re able to help Denver Water protect their resources so they can ensure their customers a reliable source of water.”

3 thoughts on “Building a better forest”

  1. This comment…“Over the past 100 years, Colorado’s forests have become overly dense which makes them more prone to catastrophic wildfires,” Banks said. “When we thin the forests, we are restoring the land to how it looked before people settled here.”…. seems to capture the greater problem in Colorado.
    – Who thinned the forests before people settled here? Natural wildfires!
    – Why have the forests become overly dense only in the past 100 years? Man’s control of natural wildfires!
    I suspect the forests took care of itself just fine before people settled there.

    Your video “forest thinning treatments” shows our tax dollars spent removing young trees to prevent the “ladder” effect of forest fires, and then replanting new tree seedlings over time. Does this seem overly intrusive, egocentric and ridiculous to anybody? I get that we need the fresh water, and our population growth now mandates management of our resources. But lets not lie to the people and pretend that we are doing nature any favors. And the sooner we admit that we are the problem, the sooner the conversation will shift to solving the real issues in Colorado. Thank you

  2. Thank you for your interest in our story about the From Forests to Faucets partnership.

    It’s important to make it clear that we are replanting trees in the burned areas, not where the treatments occur.

    Denver Water relies on the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado State Forest Service to manage this work, as they are the experts in this field. Denver Water’s involvement at this stage is to review the implementation and funding plans developed by the USFS, CSFS and Natural Resources Conservation Service each year.

    The critical work done in these priority watersheds doesn’t only mean improved water quality for Denver Water customers and millions of downstream water users, but it also provides a healthier ecosystems, which benefit forest visitors and wildlife.

    Forest and watershed restoration activities can help minimize sedimentation impacts on reservoirs and other water infrastructure by reducing soil erosion and the risk of uncharacteristic or catastrophic wildfires.

    Forest and watershed restoration also can help the forests become more resilient and resistant to future insect and disease epidemics and changes in climate.

    Restoration of forests provides many benefits to the public, including: reduced risk for communities, improved wildlife habitat, reduced hazards for recreationists, carbon sequestration, jobs, locally-sourced wood products and renewable energy from woody biomass.

    From Forests to Faucets funding is used to plant new trees in burn areas only. The USFS and CSFS do not plant new trees in areas that have been thinned.

    It’s also important to note that Denver Water does not receive any tax dollars and does not make a profit. We’re funded by water rates, bond sales, cash reserves, hydropower sales and fees for new service (called System Development Charges).

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