800 million standing dead trees in #Colorado — CO State Forest Service

csu_304464_forestreport-2016-wwwcover

Here’s the release from the Colorado State Forest Service:

Over the last seven years, the number of dead standing trees in Colorado forests increased almost 30 percent, to an estimated 834 million trees – or nearly one in every 14 standing trees. And this trend of increasing tree mortality – which is most observable in spruce-fir and lodgepole pine forests impacted by bark beetles – may result in forests conducive to large, intense wildfires like the 2016 Beaver Creek Fire that burned through beetle-kill timber northwest of Walden.

The 2016 Report on the Health of Colorado’s Forests, distributed today by the Colorado State Forest Service at the annual Joint Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Hearing at the State Capitol, highlighted this and other observed forest trends for the state. The theme of this year’s report is “Fire and Water,” focusing on how wildfires and unhealthy forest conditions impact human populations, water supplies and forested environments.

“When so many trees die and large wildfires follow, our forests quickly turn from a carbon sink into a carbon source,” said Mike Lester, State Forester and Director of the CSFS. “Beyond the implications for our atmosphere, forests in poor health have implications for our water supplies, public safety, wildlife and recreation opportunities.”

Highlights from this year’s report include:

  • Colorado’s decades-long mountain pine beetle epidemic resulted in almost 3.4 million acres with some degree of tree mortality; an ongoing spruce beetle epidemic has thus far resulted in 1.7 million impacted acres.
  • Approximately 80 percent of the state’s population relies on forested watersheds for municipal water supplies.
  • Risks ranging from severe wildfires and insect infestations to long-term droughts are likely to be amplified in the future, as climate model projections predict statewide warming between 2.5 F and 6.5 F by 2050.
  • “With increasing changes in our forests, now is the time for determining how we will manage for projected future conditions,” said Lester. He says that actions the CSFS is taking now to address these threats include forest management efforts focused on watershed protection and reducing wildfire risk; providing seedling trees for restoration efforts; wood utilization and marketing; and insect and disease detection, surveys and response.

    Much of what the CSFS accomplishes is through key partnerships with other agencies and organizations, including those with the U.S. Forest Service, Denver Water, the Northern Water Conservancy District and Colorado Springs Utilities. The agency also offers or assists with many programs and resources for communities working to become fire-adapted, including Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs), Firewise Communities/USA® and the online Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal.

    Each year, forest health reports provide information to the Colorado General Assembly and residents of Colorado about the health and condition of forests across the state, including recent data, figures and maps. Information for the reports is derived from an annual aerial forest health survey by the CSFS and the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service, as well as field inspections, CSFS contacts with forest landowners and special surveys.

    Copies of the 2016 report are available at all CSFS district offices and on the CSFS Website.

    @ColoradoClimate: Weekly Climate, Water and #Drought Assessment of the Intermountain West

    Upper Colorado River Basin January 2017 precipitation as a percent of normal.
    Upper Colorado River Basin January 2017 precipitation as a percent of normal.

    Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center.

    #Animas River: Feds seek dismissal of #NM and Navajo Nation #GoldKingMine lawsuits

    The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)
    The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

    From the Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Durango Herald:

    The Justice Department filed its motion Monday, following up on arguments first made by the Obama administration that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is protected by sovereign immunity.

    The federal government contends the agency doesn’t fit the definition of a liable party.

    New Mexico was first to sue over the mine spill, alleging that the agency had not taken full responsibility for triggering the spill of 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater from the mine near Silverton. The plume coursed through the Animas and San Juan rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

    New Mexico officials say the government’s motion was expected.

    @csindependent: Forests along the Front Range may struggle to return after fires

    From the Colorado Springs Independent (J. Adrian Stanley):

    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.'”

    @csindependent: A toxic water supply has left beloved Venetucci Farm in limbo

    Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.
    Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

    From the Colorado Springs Independent (Nat Stein):

    To say that the 2016 season didn’t go well for Venetucci Farm is an understatement.

    It was historically bad, but not for lack of rain or a pest infestation or anything that farmers are accustomed to dealing with. First, toxic chemicals discovered in the farm’s water supply in May prompted the suspension of produce sales mid-season. Then, at season’s end, a brutal hail storm wiped out the remaining solace of Venetucci’s fans — its hallmark pumpkin crop.

    News isn’t improving. In a normal year, planting would be coming up in late March, but operations on the farm are currently stalled. This could be the first season in over a century that area consumers go without fresh, local food from the region’s oldest working farm.

    Uncertainty reigns. Nobody knows the full consequences of irrigating crops with water containing perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) at levels above what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for drinking. And then there’s the question of who will own and run Venetucci Farm, which was entrusted to the Pikes Peak Community Foundation in 2006 by Bambina “Bambi” Venetucci after the 2004 death of her husband, local farmer Dominico “Nick” Venetucci.

    Bambi passed away in 2015 with the desire and belief that the family’s land would carry on in perpetuity as a working farm that welcomes schoolchildren to come pick pumpkins, free of charge, every fall. (Their generosity remains legendary — there’s a statue of Nick next to the Pioneers Museum and a depiction of him gifting a pumpkin on the label of Bristol Brewing Company’s highly popular annual Venetucci Pumpkin Ale.)

    But, even before the water crisis arose, PPCF, under new leadership, had begun reevaluating all of its legacy assets, including Venetucci Farm. Over the past few months, an advisory committee has been meeting to vet visions for a post-PPCF Venetucci, with a recommendation expected in early March. The board will take it from there — without any chance for public input.

    Whatever the foundation decides to do with the farm, recently installed CEO Gary Butterworth is unequivocal that the legacy of Nick and Bambi Venetucci will carry on. But no matter who stewards it into the future, their legacy may already be tainted by decades of chemical build-up in the aquifer beneath the farm.

    Indeed, none of this sits well with longtime consumers like across-the-street neighbor Brittany McCollough. She’s less worried about what’s in the water — “everything’s poison these days,” she notes dryly — and more worried that those who actually eat Venetucci-grown food no longer have a seat at the table.

    “It seems like the ‘community’ part has been taken out of ‘community foundation,'” she says, telling the Independent that “[consumers] have been left in the dark even though we’re impacted the most.” A teacher during the school year, McCollough helps run Venetucci’s farm stand over the summers, distributing weekly boxes of produce to community-supported agriculture (CSA) members in exchange for her own share. She’s been getting fresh vegetables for herself and her young son this way for about seven years. For her, all the extraneous factors affecting the farm are beside the point. “There are so many choices to make in the world and knowing the people who grow my food, right across the street in my own watershed — that’s really important to me,” she says.

    From the Colorado Springs Independent (Nat Stein):

    Scientists from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Axys, a private lab in Canada, all came to the farm to investigate. They took water, soil, plant and meat samples to test for PFC content. It took months for results to come back, and even then, their data took the form of raw numbers — not risk assessment, which is what the farm really needed.

    For an official interpretation of the results, Venetucci counted on the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE). Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Mike Van Dyke was willing to oblige, since he had received multiple inquiries from citizens who wanted to know whether food grown with PFC-contaminated water was safe. There just wasn’t much research out there.

    “If it were something like lead, that’s more common and actually regulated, there’d be a framework out there,” he tells the Indy. “But basically what we did was the School of Mines had done some research on uptake of PFCs by fruits and vegetables. So they’ve developed models saying, ‘If you have x amount in soil and x amount in water, you’re likely to end up with x amount in the vegetables.”

    So he and his team looked at the data those other labs had previously collected, picking out the highest concentrations to use in their analysis.

    “We used maximums, not averages, to kind of get a worst case scenario,” Van Dyke says. “The idea was to get a conservative estimate at first, then become more lenient over time if we get additional data that warrants it.”

    For the other variables, the team borrowed federal standards: EPA’s drinking water advisory for the acceptable limit of PFCs and USDA’s recommendations for daily food consumption. (That’s three vegetable servings and two fruit servings for children, and one more of each for adults. A serving equates to 100 grams of vegetables and 150 grams of fruit.)

    Given all that, CDPHE found that eating the federally-recommended amount of Venetucci’s produce, even with the highest possible uptake levels, likely won’t expose you to dangerous levels of PFCs. And in reality, let’s admit it, most people get their produce from different sources and don’t eat enough of it.