Forest Management

Forests, like most natural resources, require proper management to be healthy and productive.

Forest Management

Colorado's Forest Resources

Colorado's forests are known for their diversity and beauty. They provide habitat for many species of wildlife, improve water quality, filter pollutants from water and air, enhance outdoor and recreational experiences, provide wood products and supply jobs that support local economies.

Forests, like most natural resources, require proper management to be healthy and productive. Forest management can help achieve this objective. Forest management is the practical application of biological, physical, quantitative, managerial, economic, and social and policy principles to the regeneration, management, utilization and conservation of forests to meet specific goals and objectives while maintaining the productivity of the forest.

Forest management includes management for aesthetics, recreation, urban values, water, wilderness, fish and wildlife, wood products and other forest resource values.

Communities also have forests. Trees appear along streets, greenways, backyards and parks. These forests enhance the quality of human life by purifying air, modifying temperature extremes, reducing noise pollution, improving aesthetic appeal and increasing real estate values. Forest communities also need to be managed and nurtured to maintain these values.

With an assortment of tools and alternatives, we can proactively manage our forests, protect and enhance water quality and quantity, increase habitat diversity for wildlife and increase the growth rate of trees. In addition, properly managed forests can provide income, reduce the risk of wildland fire, help protect trees against insects and diseases, and even increase the value of property. We now have the opportunity to take actions that will shape our forests for the future.

Colorado's Changing Forests

Colorado's forests and forest conditions have changed throughout history, and their sustainability has been challenged. Climate, weather conditions, fire, insects and disease – as well as how we manage and use our forests – all contribute to their health and condition.

Change helps keep our forests healthy, but the forest insects that once selectively attacked sick trees now damage forests that stretch across mountain ranges. Wildfires that once left a mosaic of openings that enriched the soil and revitalized trees and grass, now burn so hot that they kill thick-barked ponderosa pines and so severely damage soils that they cannot even absorb gently falling rain.

Over the last two decades, Colorado's forests have faced historically significant change. Wildfires and insect and disease outbreaks have increased in size and intensity, transforming our forests in a relatively short time frame. The forestry processes and forest conditions that precipitated these outbreaks occurred over a longer time period than the outbreaks themselves, yet the changes were only recently apparent to the casual observer. Forests mature over decades. The increase in age and density of trees, and the competition for resources and drought conditions have further stressed Colorado's forests, contributing to the recent insect epidemics.

Much of Colorado's forestland, including designated wilderness areas, is managed only by natural processes. On the state's remaining forestland, however, these changes have also contributed to many of the devastating wildfires over the past decade. Increased population in the wildland-urban interface underscores the importance of planning, forest management, fuels mitigation and defensible space measures.

Forest management can fulfill an important role in how we help shape Colorado's future forests. Where lands allow for active management to occur, we can enhance forest resilience to fire, insects and diseases. This approach should ensure that at least a subset of managed forests will be resilient. Forest management also will continue to provide much-needed wood products and help diversify local economies. When we maintain a broad array of forest products markets, the economic value they provide assists us in meeting our desired future forest conditions in a cost-effective manner. In the United States, approximately 40 percent of solid wood products are imported from other countries. In Colorado, more than 90 percent of the wood products we consume are imported from other states and countries.

Conversely, if forests are left to rely only on natural processes, we can expect insects, diseases and wildfire to return in the future, with negative consequences. A balanced approach that recognizes the status of current protected lands, while encouraging management on remaining forestlands, is the best option for our future. This approach will provide diverse forests for tomorrow, and ensure that we continue to receive the wide range of benefits our forests provide.

Proactive Management

Every year, the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) reaches thousands of Coloradans with timely, relevant forestry materials, education and information. This educational assistance is only one tool we use to provide for the stewardship of Colorado's forest resources and reduce related risks to life, property and the environment. To truly meet the intent of our mission, the CSFS uses the best available science and a variety of other tools to help determine where comprehensive forest management is most needed and beneficial, including the annual forest health aerial survey and forest health report, field observations, partnerships with place-based forestry collaboratives and interagency partnerships.

As we look ahead, we have a new tool that will help the CSFS provide for the stewardship of forest resources. In December 2009, the CSFS completed the Colorado Statewide Forest Resource Assessment and the Colorado Statewide Forest Resource Strategy, which were initiated in response to a mandate from the U.S. Forest Service and contained in the Forestry Title of the 2008 Farm Bill. Collectively, these documents are referred to as the Forest Action Plan.

Forest Action Plans are a key component of the USFS State and Private Forestry Redesign Initiative launched in 2008. The plans provide a science-based foundation to assist state forestry agencies and their partners in identifying areas of greatest need and opportunity for forest management across their states, and developing subsequent long-term implementation strategies.

Colorado's Forest Action Plan and the CSFS Strategic Plan will help guide the CSFS and other forestry stakeholders as we work together to develop a landscape-level approach to leveraging limited resources where they will achieve the greatest benefit.

Learn more about Colorado's Forest Action Plan.

Watershed Health

Water is an essential element for sustaining life. Rivers, streams and lakes are the "lifeblood" of our environment. An adequate supply of clean water and the biological diversity that our watersheds support are essential to a future that is balanced both socially and ecologically. Water is the key component of the environment, and the land that surrounds that water is the structure around that environment. Together, land and water make a watershed a whole system. A "watershed" is the term used to describe an area of land united by the flow of water, nutrients, pollutants and sediments, moving downslope to the lowest point, through a network of drainage pathways that may be underground or on the surface.

We all live in a watershed and everything we do on our property can have an impact. The land drains into tributaries and these streams or creeks flow into bigger rivers. As this water flows downhill, it moves over the soil. Along the way, the water picks up debris (leaves or soil particles); sediments that can impact water quality.

Forests receive precipitation, utilize it for their sustenance and growth, and influence its storage and/or passage to other parts of the environment.

Four major river systems – the Platte, Colorado, Arkansas and Rio Grande – originate in Colorado's mountains and fully drain into one-third of the landmass of the lower 48 states. Mountain snows supply 75 percent of the water to these river systems. Approximately 40 percent of the water comes from the highest 20 percent of the land, most of which lies in national forests. National forests yield large portions of the total water in these river systems. The potential is great for forests to positively and negatively influence the transport of water such immense distances.

The following phenomena occur in relation to forests and water:

Tree crowns, collectively referred to as the forest canopy, intercept precipitation that falls from clouds. The destiny of moisture that falls in forests depends on many factors; foremost are the physical state of the water (liquid or solid), the density of tree crowns on which it falls and the composition of the forest floor. Much of the moisture in snow that is intercepted and retained in the tops of dense forests, particularly coniferous forests, tends to evaporate back into the atmosphere. Rough forest floors topped by canopies that cast significant shade tend to allow slow infiltration of water into soil, without substantial evaporation or run-off. Once moisture travels to the root zone, the root tips actively absorb and utilize what they need; the rest is lost back to the atmosphere via evapotranspiration from the leaves. Moisture in excess of plant needs remains within the soil or moves gravitationally by surface movement or groundwater to lower areas. The rate and timing of exit influences water quality and quantity.

In summary, by buffering precipitation between its atmospheric origin and its various pathways on land, forests provide:

  • soil protection;
  • erosion prevention and the costs of associated clean-up in running water pathways, storage facilities and treatment plants;
  • soil moisture recharge and storage;
  • water stabilization and purification; and
  • plant maintenance and growth, which indirectly does the same for plant-eating animals (that is, total biodiversity).

Colorado is fortunate to benefit from a century of forest watershed research conducted within our state, and from this research we know:

  • Since 1860, water yield from our aging forests has decreased approximately 20 percent.
  • Removing trees increases water yield from forests.
  • Most of the increased water yield from tree-cover removal comes from reduced evaporative losses (snow trapped in crowns).
  • Increased water yield from tree removal, while not dramatic, lasts up to 50 years or more before increased new growth reclaims excess water.
  • Following cutting, potential gains from deposition are offset by increased evapotranspiration from uncut trees and understory plants.
  • Disturbances such as fire, beetles or cutting that result in the removal of similar amounts of vegetation have effects on water yield, but not on the quality and timing of water released.
  • The spruce beetle epidemic on the White River National Forest in the late 1940s reduced 30 percent of the spruce cover, resulting in a 2-inch per unit area increase in stream flow.
  • Fire is essential to proper functioning, including watershed function, of most Rocky Mountain forest types.
  • Fires that involve entire landscapes are increasingly unacceptable within forest watersheds near human populations, and the lower the elevation, the more dire the consequences of these huge events.
  • A good scheme for increasing water yield from subalpine forests (spruce-fir) by 25 percent to 75 percent is to reduce the density by at least one-third; this is accomplished by cutting individual stems and small groups of trees, or by creating small forest openings (diameter of openings should be 5 to 8 times that of tree height); cuts should be renewed approximately every 30 to 50 years.
  • A good scheme for increasing water yield from lodgepole pine forests is similar to the subalpine scheme, except that the cutting interval is approximately 30 years and in the interim should involve early thinning of the newly established forest.
  • Modification of riparian vegetation holds the greatest potential for increased water yield from montane forests, but the associated degradation of other resource values, such as wildlife habitat/biodiversity and erosion control, precludes this as a viable option.

As with most natural systems, delicate balances are involved. There are no absolutes, and serving societal demands while mitigating related human-induced impacts are complex and expensive. Abundant clean water is a necessity, but simply opening the forest spigot by allowing unchecked natural disturbances or unregulated cutting is neither practical nor desirable. Perhaps no aspect of forestry requires the combined knowledge of biological science, geology, hydrology, meteorology, social studies and law more than the practice of wise watershed management. And perhaps none is more critical.

Actions We can Take

Natural resources are among Colorado's most valuable assets and are worthy of protection and stewardship. Increasingly, Colorado's forests need to be managed to address contemporary and emerging issues, including forest health, wildfire, watershed health, carbon sequestration, potential climate change and biomass energy. Management also must ensure the continuance of the broad array of ecosystem services upon which the public's welfare depends. These goals cannot be attained by a hands-off, leave-it-to-nature approach. They require careful planning, collaboration and action.

Following are a range of ideas that could benefit Colorado's forests and the people who depend on them:

  • Remove excess fuels, reduce tree densities in uncharacteristically crowded forests, and use prescribed fire to promote native plant growth and reestablish desirable vegetation and fuel conditions.
  • Strategically place prescribed burning and fuels reduction treatments on the landscape where they are more likely to reduce fire spread toward communities and sensitive watersheds.
  • Increase outreach efforts regarding the environmental and economic savings of locally produced wood versus imported wood.
  • Thin and create some openings in areas where fire historically burned more frequently.
  • Patch or clear-cut areas to create openings where fire burned less frequently but more intensely (high country).
  • Remove dead and dying trees to allow for the growth of the next forest and reduce fuels available for fire.
  • Introduce cutting and/or fire into old aspen stands to mimic natural disturbance; this will assist in regenerating aspen.
  • Introduce prescribed burning in some beetle-kill areas to protect communities, accelerate regrowth and help protect watersheds.
  • Increase support for the development and implementation of Community Wildfire Protection Plans.
  • Increase subsidies and incentives for local wood production and utilization; government subsidies can stimulate economies and benefit Coloradans.
  • Provide additional financial and technical support for ongoing ecological restoration programs around the state, especially those where past fire suppression has created unnatural stand structures and fire hazards.
  • Implement regulations to establish and maintain specific forest densities and fuel loads on wildland-urban interface property.

In partnership with forest landowners, other cooperators and stakeholders, the CSFS can assist in many of these efforts. For additional proactive forest management approaches and information, see our publications.

Forestry Publications

The Colorado State Forest Service is the state's primary resource for forestry information and assistance. The CSFS continues to work with private forest landowners, other cooperators and stakeholders to manage Colorado's forested lands by providing technical assistance, information and outreach that helps them meet their individual and collective stewardship objectives.

By managing our forests, we can protect water quality, increase habitat diversity for wildlife, and improve forest health and condition. In addition, properly managed forests can reduce the risk of wildfire, help protect trees from insects and diseases, increase property value and provide income. By working together, we can help improve forest conditions, creating diverse, resilient and sustainable forests for the benefit of present and future generations.