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Colorado 2023- Post-fire Reforestation

Colorado 2023 - Post-fire Reforestation

Planting Location: We are focusing on the reforestation of three wildfires in Colorado - the Spring Creek fire near La Veta, the Troublesome Fire in Grand County, and the Cameron Peak Fire near Fort Collins. In total, these fires consumed over 200,000 hectares of forests in Colorado.

Project Description/Objective: Our planting partners are working on a large-scale reforestation effort to address restoration of three of the largest forest fires in the history of Colorado – the Spring Creek Fire, the Troublesome Fire, and the Cameron Peak Fire. Our project is already the largest post-fire reforestation effort in Colorado and this portion of the project will help to increase these efforts by a significant degree. Our post-fire reforestation process includes planting rooted conifer seedlings in mixed conifer forests with low potential for natural regeneration as a result of three of the largest stand-replacing crown fires in Colorado history.

Our planting partners will plant at a density of 480 trees per hectare and anticipate mortality rate between 20 and 35 percent. The resulting density will achieve a stocking rate typical of a Colorado mixed-conifer forest. At each reforestation site, a planting plan is developed that includes partitioning the total planting area into 10 to 30 hectare blocks in order to improve logistical efficiency during planting and to establish monitoring plots where growth rate and survival are measured. Within each planting unit, trees will be established using a variable density, randomized group approach, where groups of 20 to 50 trees will be randomly established and spaced at 2 to 3 m from individual trees, and 5 to 10 m between groups. Crews of 10 to 20 planters will typically plant 7,000 to 10,000 trees per day. We generally coordinate two planting crews at a time. Each crew is managed by a planting coordinator, a planting technician and a monitoring coordinator. The coordinator and technician ensure plants are delivered to sites at appropriate times and that plants are planted according to planting protocol guidelines. The monitoring coordinator verifies quality of plantings by excavating a subsample of planted trees and establishes long-term monitoring plots with the goal to monitor 5% of the total planting area.

Ecological Benefits: This is part of a larger initiative to replant 2 million trees in Colorado that were lost during recent fires (2018 to 2021) making this the largest conservation-based reforestation effort in the history of Colorado. As a result of high stand densities, a large amount of fuel-loading due to severe pine tree mortality from bark beetles, and extremely arid conditions, the State of Colorado experienced its three largest fires in the past four years totaling more than 200,000 hectares consumed. Loss of trees and associated biodiversity, loss of carbon sequestered in trees and soil, and massive erosion in forests and riparian areas have resulted from this fire. This project will provide much needed relief to improve the currently degraded state of these forests. Unfortunately, government resources are lacking to restore forests from these fires – our efforts are the only currently occurring in these areas.

This project will significantly increase our ability to scale-up. Such scaling is essential for increasing our ability to develop a region-wide plan that addresses the entire perimeter of a fire, set landscape scale goals, and prioritize restoration at a regional level. To our knowledge, this project will be the first of its kind to address reforestation goals across an entire mega-fire in order to plan for the completion of a landscape scale reforestation effort. This is a major advance in post-fire triage response.

Science & Research efforts involved with this project:

1) Assisted migration studies - looking at how climate change is likely to impact growth and physiology of ponderosa pine trees and riparian trees. We develop common gardens using seeds sourced from a variety of locations that vary in climatic conditions and plant into warm areas to get an idea of how plants respond to warming. The question is - if we move trees from warmer areas to cooler areas in anticipation of climate change, will we improve their fitness?

2) Ecosystem carbon balance studies. We are investigating variation in carbon sequestration rates in trees and soils across multiple sites in the southwestern United States. Many studies show the sequestration rates in aboveground biomass, but less well known is how carbon storage in soils is impacted by reforestation. We are using soil gas flux approach to quantify how much carbon is stored and/or lost as a result of reforestation and wildfire.

3) Aspen assisted natural regeneration following wildfire. We are studying how different treatments such as wire fencing, jackstraw fencing, and mastication impact aspen survival and growth rates following fire. Generally, without intervention, a large fraction of aspen trees are consumed by elk following fire - so treatments that minimize elk herbivory promote aspen growth. Because aspen trees grow 2 to 3 times faster than conifer species, there is great potential to protect aspen to promote carbon sequestration.

4) Reforesting beetle-killed spruce forests. We are working to develop approaches to promote spruce recovery following beetle outbreaks. Because natural regeneration is slow, we are promoting their recovery through reforestation and direct seeding trials.

5) Impacts of fire and reforestation on insects/microbes/birds. We are evaluating how fires and reforestation impact communities of diverse organisms. For invertebrates, we focus on ground beetles as indicators of treatment impacts as they are one of the most diverse groups of insects in the region. We are also looking at recovery of mycorrhizal communities using genetic approaches. Finally, we are using acoustic sensors to monitor bird populations.

6) Genetic variation in root growth rates for riparian and pine species. We are investigating if there is genetic variation in root growth rates among different plant species. We are finding that genotypes with fast root elongation rates survive best - as they are tapping into groundwater quicker than slower-growing genotypes.

7) Drought conditioning studies. We are conducting nursery studies where seedlings are immediately exposed to stress following germination. We are finding that seedlings grown using this method are more tolerant of water stress than well-watered seedlings resulting in greater survival in restoration settings.

Community Benefits: We have established a network of landowners across three fire perimeters that includes over 500 landowners. Landowner surveys included identifying forest areas that need reforestation, aspen enhancement, and riparian restoration. In many cases, forest fires result in increased flooding downstream of the burnt watersheds and can result in significant costs for landowners. As a result, reforestation efforts that target areas that are prone to flooding provide significant benefits to landowners and may often improve the long-term security of freshwater resources for drinking, farming irrigation, and fisheries. Reforestation after disasters also has the psychological benefit of increasing the feeling of empowerment in issues surrounding natural resource management. Fires, along with climate change, can leave communities feeling isolated, depressed, and insecure about the future of nature provisioning of resources. Reforestation is a way to actively participate in the maintenance of these resources and has immediate benefits in terms of increasing sense of belonging to place and to improving carbon sequestration capacity of the landscape. The sense of restoration can be felt regionally. The entire population of the State of Colorado is worried about their future and worried about their capacity to response to emergencies. At the scale of our project, we anticipate improved quality of life for over 5 million people that depend on forests for recreation opportunities and natural resources. This project will also involve indigenous communities, ordering seedlings from Apache Nation Nurseries in New Mexico and Arizona.

Types of Trees: Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa) 30%, Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis) 20%, Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta): 5%, Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) 15%, Engelmann’s Spruce (Picea engelmannii) 15%, Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) 15%

Number of Trees Donated by Noble Oak: 20,000

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