As wildfire threat grows, Colorado has a $4.2 billion forest management to-do list

Report finds 10% of Colorado forests are ‘in urgent need of treatment’ to mitigate fire risk

Flames spin due to extreme heat and winds just off of Grand Lake east of U.S. 34, after the East Troublesome Fire jumped the highway in October 2020. (Thomas Cooper/Special to Colorado Newsline)

Staff at the Colorado State Forest Service had been working on the agency’s latest action plan for more than a year before the 2020 wildfire season began taking a devastating toll on the state. As unprecedented blazes like the Pine Gulch Fire, Cameron Peak Fire and East Troublesome Fire burned hundreds of thousands of acres in Colorado’s worst fire year on record, forest managers were saddened by what they saw — but they weren’t surprised.

“We knew this was going to happen,” said Mike Lester, Colorado’s state forester and director of the CSFS. “It was just a matter of when would everything line up. And this was the year.”

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As 2020’s historic fires are brought under control thanks to colder, wetter weather, the CSFS on Tuesday released its 2020 Colorado Forest Action Plan, laying out its vision for the future of the state’s 24 million acres of forestland. It’s a future that will involve overcoming “persistent challenges,” the report says — none bigger than the accelerating impacts of climate change, which has helped plunge many parts of Colorado into a 20-year drought worse than any dry spell the southwestern United States has experienced since the 16th century.

“Colorado has already seen the cascading disturbance effects of extreme drought conditions, including increased fire and area burned and forest insect outbreaks, leading to widespread tree mortality,” the report says. “Risk reduction is more important than ever, as the increasing trend of uncharacteristic wildfires in Colorado is expected to continue based on drought and climate change projections.”

Mitigating that risk, however, comes with a high price tag. In a months-long process, CSFS staff collaborated with dozens of experts, advocates, government agencies and other stakeholders to identify the state’s highest priorities for “treatment” — wildfire-mitigation practices like thinning or prescribed burns and other projects to promote forest health.

The result: a priority list of about 2.5 million acres, or 10% of Colorado forests, that are “in urgent need of treatment” to reduce wildfire risk, at an estimated cost of over $4.2 billion. That’s money that the CSFS, which has typically awarded just a few million dollars annually in grants for such mitigation work, simply doesn’t have.

A Colorado State Forest Service map identifying high-priority areas for wildfire mitigation work like thinning and prescribed burns. (CSFS)

The growing calls for aggressive mitigation efforts come as the risk of catastrophic fires rises due to hotter, drier weather. But they’re also part of an ongoing shift in thinking among forest managers and policymakers, who have come to view the total fire-suppression efforts employed in the United States throughout the 20th century as a mistake. Many Western forests have accumulated a “fire deficit,” with dense, excessive growth providing the heavy fuels that wildfires need to become especially large and dangerous.

After piling up for more than a century, the mitigation work now needs to be done on a massive scale, and forest managers are often barely able to scratch the surface. About 171,000 of Colorado’s forested acres were treated for fire risk between 2008 and 2017, according to CSFS estimates — representing only about 6% of the high-priority acreage identified in the report.

“A lot of it’s about working together to figure out what’s important, because we just don’t have enough resources to protect everything,” Lester said. “We have nowhere near the capacity to do it in one fell swoop.”

‘No free lunch’

Even with awareness and support for addressing fire risk on the rise, the mundane work of mitigation can be a tough sell.

Gov. Jared Polis’ 2021-22 budget request, submitted to the Colorado General Assembly last week, includes $78 million in additional funding “to improve the state’s ability to prevent, respond to, and recover from wildfire.” But most of that is earmarked for new airborne firefighting resources operated by the state’s Department of Public Safety, with just $5 million allocated to the Forest Restoration and Wildfire Risk Mitigation Grant Program overseen by the CSFS.

With financial resources in such short supply at the state level, officials are increasingly looking to the federal government, which owns nearly two-thirds of Colorado’s forestland, for help.

“This is largely a question of our federal partnership,” Polis said during a budget briefing on Nov. 2. “Forest management practices are an area (where) the federal government, in partnership with our state, frankly needs to step up. I think that with what’s happened in Idaho and California and Colorado and many other states, there will be renewed pressure on Congress to have a truly national response to better stewardship and better fire prevention on our public lands.”

There’s some momentum in that direction. Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Boulder, has sponsored a bill to establish a new federal program based on the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed millions of people on public-lands projects across the West. Neguse’s bill would provide an additional $3.5 billion in funding for the U.S. Forest Service’s hazardous fuels program.

Annual funding levels for a Colorado State Forest Service program that provides grants for wildfire mitigation. (CSFS)

Forest managers say the most important thing is for governments to provide steady, annual funding — not just one-time outlays after especially dramatic fire seasons. Colorado’s mitigation grant program received a big cash infusion in the years after several major fires burned in 2012, the report released Tuesday shows, only for funding levels to drop off again in recent years.

“To have a year like this really is a motivator to get a lot of this work done — and then the motivation tends to fade,” Lester said. “If you really want to fix this, it needs to be like the levees in New Orleans. It needs to be ongoing.”

One approach that experts say is not a realistic solution to Colorado’s forest-management backlog — at least not at the scale that some imagine — is an expansion of commercial timber harvesting. The state’s logging industry is minuscule, relatively speaking; with the vast majority of U.S. timber production occurring in the flat, fast-growing forests of the South and Pacific Northwest, the rugged, arid terrain of the Rocky Mountains doesn’t offer many prime logging opportunities.

The CSFS works closely with Colorado’s small number of harvesting contractors and lumber mills to grow the state’s market for forest products, including by administering timber sales. But these projects amount to only a drop in the bucket, and many of the state’s forested areas, like the piñon-juniper woodlands that stretch across western and southern Colorado, contain wood products of low commercial value.

In other words, no one’s going to do $4.2 billion worth of forestry work without getting paid for their trouble. “There’s no free lunch,” Lester said.

The cost of inaction, however, could be a lot higher than the cost of effective mitigation. Beyond the obvious risks that wildfires pose to people and their homes, the debris and mudslides they leave in their wake can threaten water supplies and other critical infrastructure. Colorado’s outdoor-recreation economy is also at risk from catastrophic fires, as the East Troublesome’s harrowing run through the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park showed last month.

“You need to invest in your forests,” Lester said. “The forest brings us a lot in Colorado — it brings us a big chunk of our economy, it brings us our water, it brings us our clean air. It’s a wonderful thing, and we need to invest in it to keep it healthy.”