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

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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.
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.

BUT DOES IT WORK?
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 BIG PICTURE
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.

ONLY YOU CAN…
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
@mcoc

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