Seeing Forests for the (Burnt) Trees: Wildfire and Watersheds

Jugita Krilaviciute, left, works the soil during the Vail Resorts Hayman Restoration Project in the Trail Creek drainage on Thursday, June 2, 2011. The Vail Resorts Hayman Restoration Project is in the second of a three year, $750,000 partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and The Rocky Mountain Field Institute to restore lands damaged by the 2002 Hayman wildfire, the largest in Colorado's history. Vail Resorts Photo by Peter M. Fredin. (PETER M. FREDIN)
Vail volunteers work the soil with the National Forest Foundation. Photo: Peter M. Fredin

Quick, name the three national parks closest to your home. Not so hard, right? Now name the three closest national forests. I was only able to name a couple of the 15 in my home state of California before having to look at a map.

I’m not alone, says Bill Possiel, president of the National Forest Foundation. “We think of national parks as these iconic landscapes. You could do a survey and find that a majority of Americans know the National Park System and many have visited national parks, but that is not the case with the National Forest System. But we’re trying to change that.”

The National Forest Foundation is an independent, non-profit partner of the U.S. Forest Service and this summer it launched a public awareness campaign aimed at getting more outdoor enthusiasts involved in the care of national forests and grasslands near their homes. According to the group, two-thirds of Americans live within 100 miles of a national forest or grassland.

Top on the NFF’s list of projects aimed at improving forest health is watershed remediation within areas hit by severe wildfires.

So what do forest fires have to do with the nation’s headwaters?

Forest fires deplete the trees and other plants that anchor the soil and absorb rain and snow. Without these, rain runs off quickly, rather than seeping into water reservoirs. Plus, fire can cause a significant increase in sediment in waterways, so forest fires degrade both the quantity and quality of the watershed. When drought is combined with wildfires, as is often the case, the stresses on water supplies are amplified.

The NFF works to restore forest watersheds following forest fires both through fundraising and through direct action, which involves bringing together teams of hydrologists and other experts to craft a remediation plan and then calling in volunteers to do the grunt work.

That might not sound as pleasant as a brisk hike or a mountain bike ride, but the NFF appeals to our sense of pride in public lands and also points to ways that helping restore watersheds is somewhat self-serving, since the National Forest System is the largest single source of water in the continental U.S. and 20 percent of us get our drinking water from somewhere within its 913 million acres.

In June 2002, a massive wildfire ran along the Front Range near Denver, Colorado. This blaze, called the Hayman Fire, scorched 137,000 acres of forests, including parts of the Pike National Forest. Since then, the U.S. Forest Service has planted one million trees and reseeded 17,000 acres in an effort to stem rain run-off and boost the ecosystem’s ability to filter and retain water. It did this work partly through the NFF, which gained the financial support of a number of large corporate partners, including Vail Resorts and CocaCola, and with the help of many volunteers, including Vail employees.

One of the main concerns following the Hayman Fire was that Denver’s water sources, such as the Cheesman Reservoir, located in the middle of the burned areas, would receive untenable amounts of sediment along with run-off from burned areas. Those fears were realized.

“There is decomposing granite soil, which become loose very readily,” says Possiel, about the area impacted by the Hayman Fire. “So you had basically all the vegetation burned off the area and as a consequence you had massive movement of soil into streams and reservoirs.”

So in the short term, at least, efforts to replant forests scarred by wildfire are not effective—at least in areas with soil that is exceptionally loose. Even today, 10 years later, one area hit by the fire, the Indian Creek watershed, produces 60 percent more sediment than before the fire.

In fact, Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), considers remediation efforts like planting and seeding areas following wildfires a waste of money, and says corporations are driven to help (financially and otherwise) largely to get their names associated with projects that look good on paper.

It doesn’t work because “we don’t know how to do it,” he says. “You can’t simply replace a forest.”

The use of fast growing but non-native grasses in the U.S. Forest Service’s replanting programs have only served to increase fire risk by adding fuel to the forest floor, he says, and the Forest Service itself has said that tactics such as spreading hay bales on burned areas has been ineffective in stemming soil run-off.

The National Forest Foundation is working with the U.S. Forest Service to address criticisms like these by bringing in outside experts and operating in a more open, collaborative manner, says Possiel. The NFF is focusing on native plant and wildlife habitat restoration, as well as fighting invasive plants through a separate program, and says watershed restoration practices are improving and being focused more on the specific needs of each site, rather than being administered the same way everywhere.

He acknowledges that the Forest Service has been criticized in the past for being insular and unwilling to listen to outside opinions on how—and whether—to fight forest fires.

“We [at NFF] help move the dialogue toward more collaboration,” he says. “The Forest Service has evolved significantly over the past one or two decades. It had been operating like [the only] experts, saying ‘we manage the land.’ Now, it’s a more open process.”

As for this evolution, Stahl says “that is true in how the Forest Service does many things, but not in how it fights fire.” He says the service still runs its fire program like a militaristic old boy’s club, but he says he has seen improvement particularly in the way it manages vegetation, which he attributes in part to the presence of more women in positions of influence.

Based on all this, you may or may not want to volunteer for a watershed restoration project, but we all have influence on how our forests are managed, since the Forest Service is ostensibly “ours.” This Saturday, September 29, is National Public Lands day, so opportunities abound to pitch in a bit in the name of U.S. forests and other public lands.

The National Forest Foundation is just one of many organizations pulling together volunteer activities for Saturday, and you can use this handy map to search for programs near your home.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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