For management purposes, the Colorado State Forest Service defines forest restoration as restoring healthy, diverse and resilient ecological systems to minimize uncharacteristically severe fires, especially on critical watersheds. Long after the flames are out, land managers and community leaders continue to struggle with the impacts of wildfire on people and ecosystems.
There is much discussion among researchers, practitioners and others about what constitutes forest restoration.
Restoring forest ecosystems involves more than hazardous fuels reduction. Forest restoration is necessary to re-establish structure and function, and protect and restore critical habitat, riparian areas, watersheds and many other attributes.
According to the Society for Ecological Restoration, ecological restoration involves the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.
For our purposes, we define forest restoration as restoring healthy, diverse and resilient ecological systems to minimize uncharacteristically severe fires, especially on critical watersheds.
Forest Restoration Guidelines in Ponderosa Pine on the Front Range of Colorado.
In areas that experience low-severity burns, fire events can serve to eliminate vegetative competition, rejuvenate its growth and improve watershed conditions. But, in landscapes subjected to high or even moderate burn severity, the post-fire threats to public safety and natural resources can be extreme.
Public and private entities invest millions of dollars to implement emergency measures that protect people, communities and critical resources from post-fire events such as flooding, erosion, mudslides, hazard trees and related degradation of water supplies and storage facilities.
Why Rehabilitation is of Concern
The post-fire condition of a burned landscape directly relates to the type and condition of the forest and the severity of the burn. Fire ecologists use the term burn severity to refer to the effects of fire on soil conditions and hydrologic function. In general, the denser the pre-fire vegetation and the longer the fire burns on a particular site, the more severe the effects on soil and its ability to absorb and process water.
High-severity wildfires remove virtually all forest vegetation from trees, shrubs and grasses to discarded needles, decomposed roots and other elements of ground cover or duff that protect forest soils. A severe wildfire may also cause certain types of soil to become hydrophobic by forming a waxy, water-repellent layer that keeps water from penetrating the soil and dramatically amplifing the rate of runoff.
The loss of critical surface vegetation leaves forested slopes extremely vulnerable to large-scale soil erosion and flooding during subsequent storm events. These risks, in turn, threaten the health, safety and integrity of communities and natural resources that are downstream. The likelihood that such a post-fire event will occur in Colorado is increased by the prevalence of highly erodible soils in several parts of the state and weather patterns that frequently bring heavy rains on the heels of fire season.
In the aftermath of the 2002 fire season, the Colorado Department of Health estimated that 26 municipal water storage facilities were shut down due to fire and post-fire impacts.
Common Emergency Rehabilitation Practices
Seedling trees for reforestation after wildfire can be purchased at the CSFS Nursery.
For more information on Colorado forest restoration and rehabilitation visit our publications page.