Forests, fish and skiers have place in drought plans

Forests, fish and skiers have place in drought plans

12 October 2008

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USA — Colorado’s forests, already under siege from pine beetles, fire and mismanagement, could fare worse with climate change.

Federal stewards don’t want to see that happen.

“Forests serve as a natural sponge that absorbs, stores and slowly releases water to the rivers,” said Tony Dixon, regional deputy forester with the U.S. Forest Service. “If you have no forests, you have no rivers. They are like water towers and they are under siege.”

While most think of the Forest Service as a preservation effort, it began after a time when forests were in even worse shape, Dixon said. Mining, logging, grazing and fires had all but destroyed many of the lands initially put under federal protection.

“The Western forests were not pristine,” Dixon said. Today, about 22 percent of Colorado land is in national forests, providing 68 percent of the water that flows within and out of the state.

Pine beetle damage to the forests is becoming more obvious each year, as hillsides turn red, then gray. Nights in the mountains are no longer cold enough to kill the bugs.

Fires have increased, with four times as many fires burning six times as many acres. The fire season is 78 days longer than it once was. The average time to control a fire has increased to 37 days from eight days.

And because we hate to see the forests burn, small trees once controlled by smaller periodic fires have been allowed to grow, becoming ladder fuel for the larger fires, Dixon said.

“The coming crisis is serious and we need to address every factor we have,” Dixon said.

Sage and grasslands also are threatened, said Steve Torbit, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation.

Wildlife industries – hunting, fishing or just watching – are a $33.6 billion business for the American West, but habitat is shrinking.

“Predictions of more habitat loss (from climate change) don’t leave a lot of tools in my tool box,” Torbit said. “Sagebrush and grassland areas are crucial to maintain these landscapes for wildlife.”

In the water itself, Trout Unlimited is assessing what the worst impacts of climate change could be, said Greg Espegren, aquatics specialist.

The group uses a conservation success index to measure the viability of species. It is particularly concerned with the cutthroat trout in the Colorado River basin. The risks include wildfires that degrade streams through erosion and sedimentation, increased water temperatures and winter floods.

The state’s ski industry is bracing for impacts as well, trying to begin management practices that will help it avoid some of the perils resorts in other countries have faced, said Luke Cartin, environmental manager for Vail resorts.

As glaciers are melting and snow lines rising, ski areas are losing terrain. In Europe and Australia, more impacted by global warming trends so far, some traditional ski areas have closed.

Higher elevations in Colorado are projected to retain at least some snowpack because the earlier melting is occurring mainly below 8,000 feet, but there have already been years when snows failed to show up.

Ski areas are increasingly reliant on snow-making equipment.

“We make snow to hedge our bets against it getting warm,” Cartin said.

But that might not be enough to keep the industry on course in the long run.

“The big issues that affect ski areas in other countries could affect ski resorts in Colorado,” Cartin said.

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