Federal officials entrusted with managing millions of acres of forest in Colorado and surrounding states say they’re facing accelerated decline driven by climate warming, insect infestation, megafires and surging human incursions.
They’ve been struggling for years to restore resilience and ecological balance to western forests.
But they’re falling further behind on key tasks, such as selectively thinning trees to offset the harm from decades of aggressive firefighting — often to protect houses built in woods — that has loaded forests with fuels that bring bigger burns.
“We’re in a situation where we need to act. We know we need to act. Boy, it is a daunting task,” Patricia O’Connor, the U.S. Forest Service’s acting regional forester, said in a recent interview, acknowledging a slide into widespread unhealthy conditions.
“We’re trying to change that trajectory. The problem,” O’Connor said, “is that the scale on which we need to operate is very large.”
Stakes are high — for people who rely on forests for water and as an escape from cities, for wildlife surviving on fragmented habitat, and for plants that draw down heat-trapping carbon dioxide. Wildfires last year exploded across the 22 million acres of Colorado forests, burning nearly 700,000 acres and including the three largest fires ever recorded in the state.
And top officials at the Forest Service regional headquarters west of Denver expressed urgency. For 115 years, this agency has served as a hub of expertise for taking care of once-vast and fertile forests and grasslands. A national policy, set in 2012, prioritizes restoration to a healthy ecological balance.
Yet this work has lagged, particularly under President Donald Trump, who tilted forest management toward logging extraction of profitable volumes of timber, mining and energy development, rather than the often-costly selective thinning that ecologists recommend to replicate nature’s resilient, multi-species mosaics. Trump also asserted, as ruinous wildfires ravaged federally-managed forests in California, a need to “rake” forests — the thinning that ecologists recommend — as part of his political argument that poor forest health was more to blame than climate warming in causing megafires.
And Forest Service leadership positions have stayed vacant, weakening collaboration in western states where national forests are concentrated.