A Colorado State Forest Service report predicts that several issues will plague the state’s forests. The mountain pine beetle epidemic that is transforming the state’s lodgepole pine forests is only one example of the issues affecting the health of Colorado’s forests, the report said. The "2007 Report on the Health of Colorado’s Forests, Special Issue: Forest Challenges, Today and Tomorrow" identified issues such as wildfire suppression, climate change and rural property development that are likely to impact the state’s forests over the next several decades.
In recent years, Colorado’s forests have experienced several large-scale insect infestations, from ips beetles in the pinon forests of southwestern Colorado to mountain pine beetles in northern lodgepole pine forests. In both cases, the infestations have or will result in tree mortality rates that exceed 90 percent. Additionally, Sudden Aspen Decline (SAD) more than doubled in Colorado from 2006 to 2007, increasing from 139,000 to 334,000 acres.
Spruce beetle likely will be Colorado’s next statewide forest insect challenge, and outbreaks are expanding in many locations throughout Colorado. In addition, the presence of western balsam bark beetle and root diseases, which are native to subalpine fir forests, has increased during the past decade or two.
Threats to urban and community forests also are on the rise. Salts used to de-ice roads continue to weaken roadside trees such as maples, lindens, and elms. Black walnut mortality is killing urban walnut trees in several Colorado cities and towns.
Tamarisk and other invasive trees such as Russian-olive also threaten Colorado’s riparian forests. Although this represents only about one percent of the state’s total forested area, these forests provide essential benefits disproportionate to their size and are critical to the livelihood of Colorado’s agricultural communities.
Several factors have contributed to the decline of Colorado’s forests. For example, wildfire suppression has led to expansive areas of forests that are either the same age or overcrowded. This makes them more prone to widespread and intense wildfires, and predisposes them to forest insect and disease epidemics that result in high mortality rates. Warming temperatures from climate change also increase the likelihood of more wildfires.
Residential development in fire-prone areas, known as the wildland-urban interface, reduces forest cover and increases demand for wildfire protection, fractures wildlife habitats and increases forest management costs.
"In the past, wildfire was an agent that actively helped our forests stay healthy," said Jeff Jahnke, state forester and director of the Colorado State Forest Service. "But without wildfires to regenerate forests and introduce a beneficial mix of ages, forest management may be necessary to create and maintain forests that Coloradans rely on," he said.
Communities that are proliferating in fire-prone areas increase the need for wildfire suppression, and the lack of wildfire may mean more intense fires in the future, the report said.
A Colorado State University analysis found that more than 300,000 homes were located in Colorado’s wildland-urban interface in 2000, and this figure is projected to more than double to 720,000 homes in 2030.
To address the challenges Colorado’s forests face, Gov. Bill Ritter recently created the Colorado Forest Health Advisory Council. The council brings together forestry experts and stakeholders to identify short- and long-term actions to sustain Colorado’s forests. The council also will build on the successes of local forest partnerships that already exist across the state, many of which have developed strategies to address their specific areas of concern. By consulting with these groups, the council will determine how best to support them and incorporate their findings into a statewide plan. Jahnke, and Harris Sherman, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources are co-chairs of the new council.
To view the report, visit the Colorado State Forest Service at http://csfs.colostate.edu/ and click on 2007 Forest Health Report.
The Colorado State Forest Service is a division of Colorado State University.