TREE PLANTING IN THE WALDO CANYON BURN AREA
We have had many requests from groups to plant trees in the Waldo Canyon Burn Area and we are very grateful and excited about your offers to help. However, we will only plant a limited number of trees over the next few years.
After a wildfire, short-term emergency efforts are essential to lessen the impacts of rain upon the denuded landscape and mitigate flooding risks. Our initial efforts focus on hill-slope stabilization by the strategic planting of native grasses and nurse crops as well as the installation of erosion control structures. These early restoration steps will provide a more amenable environment for crews and volunteers to safely plant young trees in the coming years. While CUSP will be planting some trees, our priority focus will be on emergency efforts aimed at reducing flood impacts and giving future seedlings the best chance possible to grow in our harsh climate. The limited number of trees planted will go primarily on private property. In future years, tree plantings will increase and your offers for assistance and aid will be more important than ever.
Just because we are limiting the number of tree plantings, as we focus on emergency measures that will ultimately improve tree survival, this does not mean we do not need your help; actually, your help is now more critical than ever. As we embark upon the emergency work needed now, we could use your helping hands with many projects, including: raking, reseeding, chipping, mulching, installing log erosion barriers or erosion control structures, debris removal, sandbagging, installing wattles, and installing gabion baskets to protect infrastructure, water supplies and homes.
Many people have asked CUSP when is the right time to plant trees after a wildfire?
Below is the simple, or short answer, as well as a more detailed description that explains why CUSP has taken a very strategic approach to reforestation.
The Short Answer:
In order to ensure high rates of survival, safe volunteer experiences and the most effective reforestation, CUSP plants trees only after initial emergency hill-slope rehabilitation techniques have been implemented. Planting trees occurs after hill-slope stabilization efforts, grass seeding and hazardous tree felling operations have taken place. By using the phased approach CUSP ensures high survival rates and the best use of donated and purchased trees.
The Long Answer:
To better understand this question we first must understand what the greatest long term impacts. According to Fire Education Expert, Alix Rogstad,
The most damaging long-term resource impact that can occur after wildfire is soil erosion. Erosion robs land of its soil and its ability to grow vigorous trees. A healthy forest functions to keep soil in place on the land. The forest canopy intercepts raindrops and reduces their impact on the soil. Rain which makes it through the canopy is intercepted by the litter layer which covers the forest floor. Together, the canopy and litter layer protect the soil by keeping the rain from detaching soil particles. Without this protection, detached soil particles can wash down denuded slopes, entering stream channels and reducing water quality and altering or degrading aquatic habitat. In addition to protecting soil from the force of rain, a litter layer functions to help the soil absorb rainwater. In the absence of litter, rain is more likely to hit the soil surface and run off than infiltrate into the soil, reaching the stream channels faster, leading to an increase in the possibility for flooding (http://cals.arizona.edu/pubs/natresources/az1294/).
Because we know how important water interception is from the liter layer and understory vegetation, we understand that without this vital litter layer water will race down the barren slopes. CUSP has worked diligently to supplement the lack of a litter layer with the seeding of native grasses. While not as effective at the carpet of pine needles that once lay upon the slopes, native grasses do play an important role in water interception and velocity reduction. With new grass seed spread, hazards reduced and hill-slope treatments enacted, CUSP then recommends the planting of trees. All of these treatments in symphony help to filter rain water and snow melt and keep mud, ash, and silt from contaminating fresh-water lakes and reservoirs.
Will CUSP replant the same number of trees that were lost in the fire?
Reforestation efforts are aimed at protecting the hill-slopes and restoring the forest; however, the reforestation efforts must be done in such a way that our efforts do not recreate the situation that led to many of the fires in our Front Range Forests.
Ponderosa Pine forests that cover much of the Colorado Plateau have evolved over thousands of years. Over this time the trees have developed several adaptations which help it survive in it’s dry, and often warm habitat. A once common occurrence in these forests, which has shaped the pine’s particular ecological adaptations is wildfire.
Ponderosa Pine forests were subjected to low-intensity ground fires every 5- 10 years. However, in the early 1900’s natural fire patterns changed drastically. Fires were suppressed because of resources and lives lost. The absence of reoccurring fires (low-intensity fires) has led to unforeseen changes in the forests composition and structure.
The trees we often see are of a relatively small diameter. Dense thickets of “dog Hair” pine characterize many forests on the Front Range. The common low intensity fires once destroyed small trees and left the large, older healthier trees, stand tall. Pine cones and forest litter were consumed by these frequent low intensity fires. The forest was healthy and wide open.
Today, because of dense forest stands, of “dog hair”, fires grow large fast. Fires that once were low-intensity ground fires now grow to be stand replacing crown fires (like the Hayman Fire, 2002 or the Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012). In addition to the potential for catastrophic wildfire these dense thickets create, the large number of trees per acre increases the competition amongst the trees for the limited nutrients and water. To put this into perspective: Imagine a lunch buffet that will only feed 20 people, but there are 100 people waiting in line. Will they all get to eat until full? Will some not eat at all? This buffet is much like the forest floor. Where there was only 20 trees per acre there are now 100 or even 200. These trees must compete for the valuable food. Some trees will only get a little, and others none. The trees that get little or no nourishment are then left weak, susceptible to disease and insects. These trees may eventually die and crowd the forest floor in wait for the next fire.
Trees will be planted strategically within the Waldo Canyon Fire burn scar to ensure that the number of trees per acre do not recreate the challenges we face today. Acceptable areas, will be retained as meadows, with no trees, and other areas will be planted more heavily. Species suitable to the local ecosystem will be planted to ensure that the future forest is resilient to the harsh Colorado weather, and that the unique species are common to the micro-environments presented within the Waldo Canyon burn scar. As with any long term project, maintenance will be essential to ensure that we give the trees the best chance for survival. The forest will regrow and thrive again, but it is essential that we have succinct and detailed plans and strategies in place to make sure we are doing the best for both, the natural and built worlds. If you are interested in learning more, please call CUSP.
Jonathan Bruno / Operations Director / The Coalition for the Upper South Platte