In the Sunday Denver Post was a reprint of a story from the Vail Daily. The headline was “should aspen replace lodgepole in local forests?”.
This is about a partnership to plant aspen in Summit County, described by TNC this way:
The partners are testing the potential for increases in aspen trees to act as natural fuel breaks for wildfire at the 46-acre Barney Ford open space site, just outside of downtown Breckenridge. Since aspens are less flammable and have a higher moisture content than conifers, they may act to reduce fire severity. Adding more aspen in forests also has wildlife benefits, as it increases insect and plant biodiversity and creates valuable habitat for elk, moose and deer.
Seems like a small, innocuous project, right?
Back to the news story:
“We were very intrigued with the idea of how can we help establish aspens in Summit County,” Lorch said. “One of the issues we see is that as we do the buffers around our communities for wildfire purposes, most of what’s growing back is the same lodgepole thicket that we had before. So in a short period of time, 20 years or so, we’ll have the same issues with fire concerns as we had prior to the cutting. We’ve done some places where we’ve thinned things in order to try to avoid having such a fuels load, but really aspens, and having a more diverse forest, is a much better plan in the long run.”
One interesting thing was this take (drive-by?) on The Nature Conservancy by Tom Veblen, a professor at the University of Colorado.
It’s true that aspens are less flammable than pine trees. And trying to populate former lodgepole zones with aspens can be a worthwhile cause, says forest ecologist Thomas Veblen with the University of Colorado.
“If the financial resources are available to spend a lot of money on forest management, that’s a worthy goal, to increase the area of aspen, and that’s likely to decrease the spread of fires in the future,” Veblen said.
But The Nature Conservancy’s studies on fire fuels reduction, which includes examining aspen repopulation in areas clear cut of lodgepole pine, may end up helping, most of all, The Nature Conservancy, Veblen says.
“They have a structure of people and resources that can do fire mitigation, they’ve got to keep it funded, so there’s a self interest there,” Veblen said. “They have contracts with the Forest Service to do a lot of forest management, so The Nature Conservancy, from that perspective, has a self interest in promoting fuels reduction.”
I called the folks at TNC about this, and while they were interviewed by Mr. LaConte about the project, they were not asked to comment on Veblen’s assertion, and say that it is incorrect.
University of Montana fire ecologist Richard L. Hutto is skeptical of The Nature Conservancy’s efforts.
“I don’t see wholesale conversion of something to something else in the name of fire safety,” he said. “The thing that determines fire behavior and whether it’s going to get crazy is temperature, humidity and wind, not fuels.”
We’ve gotten from diversifying the forest to “wholesale conversion”. I guess that’s building a straw person. We fans of the robust and resilient Pinus contorta know how unlikely that result would be under any scenario. It’s a fairly strong statement to say that fuels don’t “determine fire behavior”.. maybe that’s Hutto’s careful use of language but certainly fuels impact fire behavior.
Another fire ecologist (Baker) says that they should spend money instead on adapting the community and should work with Fire Adapted Colorado (I think it’s likely that they are already doing this). But are fire ecologists good sources of info on what communities “should” spend money on?
Baker also uses the “it doesn’t always work” argument – “in aspen stands many, but not all fires hit the ground.” I’d take “many but not all” over “none” myself.
If Fire Adapted Colorado sounds familiar, it works closely (according to its webpage) with FAC Net, which is of course, a partnership with … The Nature Conservancy.
Fire Adapted Colorado is an independent non-profit organization closely associated and born out of the Fire Adapted Community Learning Network (FAC Net). FAC Net is a national network of people working to build wildfire resilience capacity in wildfire-prone communities. It is supported through a partnership among The Nature Conservancy, the Watershed Research and Training Center and the USDA Forest Service. FAC Net’s purpose is to connect and support people and communities who are striving to live more safely with wildfire. A fire adapted community is a knowledgeable, engaged community that is taking actions that will enable them to safely accept fire as part of the surrounding landscape. For more information about FAC Net, visit www.fireadaptednetwork.org.
I’ve always thought that it is interesting when people get together and do something they think is good, and how these stories are reported. For example, how many inches are devoted to description of the actions compared to critics (in the Denver Post reprint, it was almost 50/50). And why people from elsewhere (Steamboat, Boulder, Wyoming, Montana), academics and not, are thought to be experts on managing areas around Breckinridge. And when the doers get a chance to respond to critics.