Fix­ing Sum­mit County forests with the help of ‘cit­i­zen sci­ence’

Texarkana Gazette - - ADVICE/COMMUNITY - By Jack Queen Sum­mit Daily News

FRISCO, Colo.—The pine bee­tle came to Sum­mit County in 2005, turn­ing scores of trees red and creep­ing higher up the moun­tain­sides each year.

Twelve years later, nearly every stand of lodge­pole pines has been af­fected, and they stand in gray, dead clus­ters, cre­at­ing headaches for fire­fight­ers, for­est man­agers and con­cerned res­i­dents. It’s been the same story through most of the High Coun­try.

On Nov. 3, more than 30 rep­re­sen­ta­tives from forestry groups across the state gath­ered in Frisco for the an­nual Colorado For­est Col­lab­o­ra­tives Sum­mit to share how they are still try­ing to heal their dam­aged forests.

It’s an up­hill bat­tle, and will likely re­main so for at least a gen­er­a­tion. But if there’s a sil­ver lin­ing, at­ten­dees said, it’s the level of en­gage­ment and co­op­er­a­tion that the bee­tle scourge has in­spired among di­verse groups across the High Coun­try.

“The bark bee­tle just kept chew­ing at the trees, mov­ing to higher el­e­va­tions, and pretty soon many of our forests were a lot dif­fer­ent … we re­ally didn’t know what to do about what was hap­pen­ing to our back­yards,” re­called Howard Hall­man, pres­i­dent of the For­est Health Task Force.

As wild­fires con­tinue to burn hot­ter, big­ger and more fre­quently across Colorado, fire­fight­ing costs have been swal­low­ing up more and more of the U.S. For­est’s Ser­vice bud­get. At the same time, for­est re­me­di­a­tion needs are more ur­gent than ever.

But with the agency’s re­sources be­ing pulled in both di­rec­tions, groups like the FHTF have been step­ping up to help out, pro­vid­ing valu­able “cit­i­zen sci­ence” on the forests that helps speed along thin­ning projects and cul­ti­vates buy-in from com­mu­ni­ties.

This year, vol­un­teers with the FHTF and Friends of the Dil­lon Ranger Dis­trict have been con­duct­ing stand ex­ams in more than 60 spots around Sum­mit County, help­ing the For­est Ser­vice iden­tify the parts of the for­est most ur­gently in need of work.

That ex­tra data has saved the For­est Ser­vice time and money at a time when it is des­per­ately short on both. Re­cently, it helped speed along a re­me­di­a­tion project near Key­stone.

“We did (that project) pretty quickly and in ef­fi­cient time, and that was be­cause we front­loaded it with help from folks be­ing out on the ground tak­ing the data for us,” said USFS deputy dis­trict ranger Adam Bianchi.

The For­est Ser­vice pro­vides the vol­un­teers with train­ing and gear, then sends them fan­ning out across the for­est to check up on the trees. In to­tal, the group has checked more than 200 plots of for­est.

“The idea is that in the fu­ture as we con­tinue to grow, the group will help iden­tify and help us fig­ure out where on the dis­trict and where in the com­mu­nity we should be fo­cus­ing on,” Hall­man said. “Where is the high­est pri­or­ity?”

Res­i­dents are some­times wary of thin­ning and mit­i­ga­tion ac­tiv­i­ties, es­pe­cially when it means cut­ting trees near their homes. That was es­pe­cially the case in the early days of the bee­tle cri­sis, but Bianchi said peo­ple are start­ing to come to terms with the fact that the for­est is sick, and some­times it needs bit­ter medicine.

A ben­e­fit of the cit­i­zen stand ex­ams, Bianchi said, is that vol­un­teers can ed­u­cate them­selves on for­est health is­sues in the field and re­turn to the com­mu­nity as am­bas­sadors for the For­est Ser­vice.

“It went from, ‘What the heck is the For­est Ser­vice do­ing?’ to, ‘All right, this makes sense,’” he said.

Dur­ing the meet­ing, other foresters shared sto­ries of how cit­i­zen data sets are help­ing them com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter with the com­mu­ni­ties they serve and stream­line projects.

On the Un­com­pah­gre Plateau in south­west Colorado, for in­stance, the Colorado Forestry In­sti­tute has high school in­terns gath­er­ing data in the field. A sim­i­lar pro­gram in Pagosa Springs re­cently en­listed stu­dents to con­duct stand ex­ams and help sell the com­mu­nity on an im­por­tant thin­ning project at the edge of town.

There are some who are con­cerned that cit­i­zen sci­ence lacks the rigor and re­li­a­bil­ity of the work done by pro­fes­sion­als. But Aaron Kim­ple of the Moun­tain Stud­ies In­sti­tute, who worked with the Pagosa Springs stu­dents, said its value is twofold.

“You have to think of cit­i­zen sci­ence in mul­ti­ple com­po­nents: one is the data, and the other is learn­ing and ed­u­ca­tion,” he told the group. “It de­pends on what you’re hop­ing to get out of it.”

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