Forests along the front range may struggle to return after fires

Forests along the front range may struggle to return after fires

15 February 2017

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USA — –  Carol Ekarius has spent her career in dead forests. As leader of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), her job is protecting watersheds — and forest fires destroy watersheds. CUSP was founded in 1998, two years after the Buffalo Creek Fire, but it became famous for reforestation and stormwater work following the 2002 Hayman Fire, the largest blaze in state history. Nowadays, Ekarius gets a call any time a major forest fire hits our region. CUSP has been instrumental, for instance, in assisting with the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire.

But Ekarius says that her work isn’t to bring forests back to the way they were — that’s impossible.

“When Hayman originally burned there was a forester on the Pike [National Forest] that has since retired,” she says. “… [He] said, ‘For this forest to come back to the forest it used to be, we’re talking 1,000 years.'”

If that seems like a long time, consider this: A recent University of Colorado at Boulder study is questioning whether burned forests will ever return to normal on the Front Range.

Limited conifer regeneration following wildfires in dry ponderosa pine forests of the Colorado Front Range, by Fire Ecologist Monica Rother and CU-Boulder Professor of Geography Thomas Veblen, surveyed conifer regeneration at six low-elevation Front Range sites that burned eight to 15 years before. Released in December and published in the journal Ecosphere, it found that “current patterns of post-fire seedling establishment suggest that vegetation composition and structure may differ notably from historic patterns and that lower density stands and even non-forested communities may persist in some areas of these burns long after the fire[.]”

Translation: Based on historical trends, these sites should have been populated with conifer seedlings. But 83 percent of the sites showed a very low density of seedlings. In fact, 59 percent had no seedlings at all.

Reached at the Florida research station where she now works, Rother says we can expect Front Range burn areas — like our own Waldo and Black Forest Fire scars — to regrow some conifers. But, due to a variety of factors, including increased temperatures, it’s unlikely that the forest will come back the way we remember it. “Our findings show some portions that burn will persist as grasslands,” she says.

Rother says her study can’t pinpoint the exact reason why forests aren’t recovering as expected because there are so many factors involved. Fires that burned hotter leave behind more damaged ground, for instance. Ponderosa seeds don’t travel far, so areas where trees were completely wiped out may be too distant from a seed source. Then there’s temperature, water and elevation to consider. Even the direction the slope faces or the amount of shade provided to an individual seedling can impact survival rate.

But here’s something to keep in mind, Rother says: The older trees that burn in fires were seedlings some 50 or 100 years ago, and we know the climate was different then. The 2014 Climate Change in Colorado report for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, for instance, found that statewide, annual average temperatures have increased 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 30 years, and 2.5 degrees over the past 50 years (precipitation levels have meanwhile shown no trend). While that may seem like a small change, Rother notes that in a separate 2015 study published in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research, she, Veblen and research assistant Luke Furman found that when they simulated different conditions that ponderosa pine and Douglas fir seedlings growing in a post-burn Front Range area might experience, those that saw more heat or less water fared poorly.

On a hopeful note, though, Rother says her more recent study looked at portions of three fires on the more northern Front Range, and portions of three more to the south. The southern fires — 2000’s High Meadows Fire, Buffalo Creek, and especially Hayman — showed the best recovery. That might seem odd, given that southern Colorado is known to be dry.

“That was a surprise to us too,” Rother says, explaining that it’s possible that higher altitudes or more summer monsoon rains made the difference on the Hayman.

Jim Gerleman is the Forest Vegetation Program Manager for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests and Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands — the local guy who’s tracking what’s happening on the Waldo Canyon burn scar. For the past few years, he says, the Forest Service has been planting seedlings over 200 acres in the burn scar.

All the seedlings are grown from local seed and most are professionally planted to target the best possible season (usually April), the most promising slopes, and even the exact sites where the babies are most likely to survive. Over three years, Gerleman says, the trees have had a 60 percent survival rate, which isn’t excellent, but is considered normal.

Ponderosas can be finicky, Gerleman says. They need minerals, which usually means vegetation has to grow first, then die and enrich the soil. But thick grass can also choke out ponderosa seeds.

Waldo, Gerleman says, has come back fairly well — there’s grass, shrubs, even some aspens. But he doesn’t expect the whole forest to regenerate unless they replant it all.

Ekarius says the problem is that ponderosa forests are designed to burn — just not the way that they have. In a natural setting, the oldest trees will survive. A ponderosa mother tree has to be at least 40 years old to produce cones, and her babies grow near her. This is how our forest is supposed to regenerate. But recent fires have burned super-hot, fueled by dry, sweltering weather, and a forest allowed to overgrow due to fire suppression. They left behind a barren landscape.

Ekarius thinks Waldo, aided by wet years, has recovered well. But she expects it to always have areas of grassland where tall stands of conifers once grew. Those grasslands, she says, should prove a good home to elk and bighorn sheep, though they won’t provide suitable habitat to forest squirrels and goshawks. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. “I think it’s different, and I think we don’t like different,” Ekarius explains. “If you’ve been looking at forest for the past 20 years out your back window and now you’re looking at grasslands, you’re probably thinking, ‘Well I didn’t want to live in the plains.'”

SINGAPORE, Feb 9 — People in Singapore are willing to cough up nearly 1 per cent of their annual income in order to guarantee the absence of transboundary haze for a year, researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have found.

In total, they are willing to pay US$643.5 million (RM2.8 billion) a year — large enough to make a “substantive impact on the problem” if used for land conservation and restoration, the researchers state in a paper published in February’s issue of the journal,Environmental Research Letters.

The paper’s authors, Yuan Lin, Lahiru Wijedasa and Dr Ryan Chisholm, wrote: “Our results indicate that Singaporeans experience sufficiently negative impacts of air pollution (in) their day-to-day life, or personal health during haze periods, that they are willing to trade off personal financial gain for improvements in air quality.”

Transboundary haze is a long-standing problem in the South-east Asian region, largely caused by the drainage of carbon-rich peatland as well as companies and farmers in Indonesia using fire to clear land.

Singapore experienced its worst haze episode in 2015 from September to November, with the Pollutant Standards Index hitting hazardous levels.

Since then, Indonesia has renewed efforts to prevent fires, although a state of emergency was declared last month in Riau province over forest and land fires.

The economic impact of haze pollution here has been estimated using cost-benefit analysis before, but the researchers said that the figures could be an under-estimate because they exclude impacts — such as non-hospitalisable health effects — that are difficult to infer from economic data.

The 2015 haze episode was estimated to have cost Singapore S$700 million (RM2.19 billion) in losses.

The NUS researchers surveyed 390 people in public areas from November 2015 to February 2016 on their willingness to pay, should the Singapore Government be able to guarantee good air quality year-round.

The participants, from various age and income groups, were given options ranging from 0.05 per cent to 5 per cent of their annual income, after they indicated if they were willing to support such a haze mitigation fund.

The average person’s willingness to pay was an estimated 0.97 per cent of his/her annual income.

However, about three in 10 respondents were unwilling to pay even the minimum option of 0.05 per cent of their annual income.

Wijedasa said that one of the solutions proposed for the haze problem is payments for ecosystem services.

“This could take the form of richer nations aiding better land management and restoration by making regular payments.

“Indonesia has estimated that it needs US$2.1 billion to help restore two million hectares of peatland in (the country). They have currently only received US$50 million from Norway and US$17 million from the United States.

“Could this shortfall be filled by Singapore (and other countries in the region)?”

Tan Yi Han, who is not involved in the study and is co-founder of non-governmental organisation People’s Movement to Stop Haze, said that the findings are helpful and “should motivate the Singapore Government to spend on measures to prevent haze, such as a subsidy on certified sustainable palm oil, as well as aid to support peat restoration and protection efforts in Indonesia”.

His organisation’s survey last year found that more than nine in 10 respondents were willing to pay more for certified sustainable products to help mitigate the haze, Tan said.

Most were willing to pay 5 to 10 per cent more.

Consumers game to chip in to avoid any haze include Steven Lim, who is in his 40s and self-employed. How much he is willing to contribute would depend on the amount needed to make an impact.

“Maybe S$10? Multiplied by many individuals, it would be a lot,” Lim said, preferring that the money goes to the Indonesian government.

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El capitán del primer batallón de la Unidad Militar de Emergencias (UME), Emilio Arias, ha descrito como “dantescos” los efectos del incendio forestal en el paraje natural de la Sierra de Gata (Cáceres), aunque ha sido optimista en cuanto a su extinción al darse una situación “bastante favorable” en estos momentos. Fotogalería ALCALDE 11 Fotos La Sierra de Gata, tras el incendio “El incendio se dio por estabilizado y ahora mismo sólo hay pequeños focos que se reactivan por lo que la situación es bastante adecuada para intentar extinguir el fuego”, ha explicado Arias en una entrevista en COPE. Arias ha descrito como “dantesco” el efecto del fuego en una zona “donde el terreno era precioso”. El mando único del Plan Director del Infoex decidía este lunes mantener activo el Nivel 2 de peligrosidad en el incendio de Sierra de Gata ante las previsiones de viento y altas temperaturas. Las mismas predicciones indican que habrá una mejoría a partir de las primeras horas de la noche del lunes, según ha informado la Junta de Extremadura. Más de 200 efectivos se mantienen en la zona. Intentar llegar a la normalidad es “un tanto difícil”, y que ahora hay que hacer valoraciones de los daños El incendio declarado el pasado jueves ha arrasado unas 7.500 hectáreas de alto valor agrícola, ambiental y paisajístico, de ahí que el Gobierno regional haya iniciado ya la evaluación de los daños y comenzado a preparar la recuperación de la zona. El director general de Medio Ambiente, Pedro Muñoz, ha afirmado que el incendio ha causado un “desastre” desde el punto de vista medioambiental ya que ha arrasado miles de hectáreas de pinar, olivar y pastos, además de haber producido cuantiosos daños materiales en algunas poblaciones. La asociación conservacionista SEO/Birdlife ha denunciado que el incendio afectó gravemente a especies amenazadas y a espacios protegidos de la Red Natura 2000, incluidos robledales, madroñales y castañares centenarios. Todo el área afectada es una zona ornitólogica de interés mundial. Por su parte, el alcalde de la localidad cacereña de Hoyos, Óscar Antúnez, ha alabado la participación ciudadana en el municipio para ayudar a los operarios del plan Infoex como “lo bonito dentro de la tragedia” y ha añadido que el “sentir general” de los ciudadanos de Sierra de Gata es de “frustración e indignación” tras el incendio forestal. El alcalde ha señalado que ha podido hablar con los vecinos de la localidad y que los “más afectados” son los que han perdido fincas o casas de campo, sobre todo una familia que ha perdido su domicilio de vacaciones habitual, que era una casa “recién reformada”. Asimismo, Óscar Antúnez ha indicado que intentar llegar a la normalidad es “un tanto difícil”, y que ahora hay que hacer valoraciones de los daños, tanto la Mancomunidad de Municipios de Sierra de Gata como la Junta de Extremadura, para ver qué ayudas se pueden proporcionar y de qué modo, además de cuáles serán los medios disponibles. Por último, el primer edil de Hoyos ha explicado que los vecinos, “más allá de la lamentación”, deben intentar hacer “una vida normal”, aunque ha considerado que es muy difícil “dado el paisaje que tenemos”, ya que casi el 90% del término municipal está calcinado, ha indicado.

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