I thought this guest column in the Colorado Springs Gazette was interesting because it addresses the problem of developing wildfire resilient communities in its pure form (without the environmentalist/timber industry battles nor their “scientific” proxies). It requires more working together, different policy options (say, for more prescribed burning) and of course, funding. As the authors state, “Forest Service budgets cannot tackle such scale of management.” The authors represent a grant-making not for profit called the El Pomar Foundation.
The term “tragedy of the commons” might apply to Pikes Peak forest health: many benefit from a forested, serene Colorado Springs backdrop, yet none hold exclusive responsibility for its health and management. We lack the capacity needed to tackle broad regional public-private forest restoration due to two factors: the centurylong expectation that the U.S. Forest Service holds sole responsibility for forests, and the lack of responsible management across private forest landholders. We can no longer ignore the need our community has for conversation and action on this issue.
Imagine that massive fire revisits our region as a catastrophic fire on Cheyenne Mountain and the east slopes of Pikes Peak similar to the 1950 event. We know conditions could be ripe for near hurricane-force winds to push fire through our watersheds and down slopes into the wildland urban interface. If we look only at a strip of damage about 1 mile wide along the Wildland Urban Interface with Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, potential lost property values could be $1.67 billion from NORAD Road north to Lake Avenue. If a strip northwest from Lake Avenue to U.S. 24 were to burn, $1.24 billion could go up in smoke. And these values exclude loss of use, property contents, and regional loss of recreation and tourism visitation. A a recent Pikes Peak Forest Health Symposium organized by El Pomar Foundation’s Pikes Peak Heritage Series was a first step in bringing together experts and interested regional residents to take stock of the threat. Symposium participants absorbed the grim messages of prior mega fires as well as dangerous conditions existing on a massive scale across the American West and right behind Colorado Springs in the Pike National Forest. They also heard about some promising public-private partnerships that, on a small to medium scale, are tackling forest restoration.
Across the nation and especially in forested regions, there are new programs, partners and fast evolving funding sources that could serve as examples in an effort to protect the flanks of Pikes Peak now and for future generations. Forest Service budgets cannot tackle such scale of management, but new approaches are enticing private capital and partnerships to share costs and benefits.
Colorado Springs’ mountain backdrop could be a model for a well-managed forest, with the Pike Ranger District the focus of an innovative public-private partnership that would selectively thin and manage for restoration to historic conditions. The results would allow, indeed encourage, low-intensity fires (natural and human induced) to clear out understory without the danger of fire reaching the crowns of trees that kill large swatches and scorch the soil.
What if proactive public-private partnerships and access to private capital were brought to bear on our Pikes Peak backdrop? And what if a small percentage of potential damages from catastrophic fire were combined from stakeholders benefiting and transferred to current vulnerable forests and watersheds to initiate such an effort? Given just the property values in the El Paso County Assessor’s records, losses of several billion dollars from a huge fire are possible; some $20 million at the front end could attract innovative tools, organizations, and public-private partnerships. Whether/who/how leadership will step forward is a gigantic question and challenge.
The Pikes Peak region has confronted and solved complex issues and can do so yet again if forest health is converted from being viewed as a static natural amenity to a dynamic, vital and scarce form of natural capital underpinning our mountain backdrop, economy and quality of life.