What started in Chaffee County has made its way to Lake County, forest mitigation efforts through nongovernmental entities, that is.
The efforts are unique in that they are not solely reliant on the U.S. Forest Service.
These mitigation efforts are collaborative in effort through Envision Chaffee County, National Forest Foundation and American Forest Foundation. The efforts are considered part of a priority landscape by the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative.
Envision Chaffee County is a local movement that facilitates longer-term actions and views for the sake of healthy forests, wildlife, water, agriculture and the economy.
American Forest Foundation, a Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative partner, empowers family forest landowners to be active stewards of their own land.
The Initiative has more than 40 partners across Colorado that deliver cross-boundary solutions for priority landscapes. Montana-based National Forest Foundation also partners with Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative, and is the official nonprofit partner of the U.S. Forest Service to bring people together to restore the nation’s forests and grasslands.
“People are looking to Chaffee County as a leader, as well as Lake County. The community is on the same page with improving forest health. A lot of this is still developing and in the early stages,” said Salidan Marcus Selig, vice president of field programs for the National Forest Foundation.
Kim Marquis, Envision program and outreach coordinator, said, “Many people think about forest fires in our national forests, but a significant amount of at-risk acres are located on private property. In Chaffee County, a third identified as treatment priority areas are privately owned. Of course, wildfire knows no ownership boundaries.” Selig also said that fire doesn’t know boundaries. The same goes for beetles.
He said the scale of the problem is beyond the Forest Service’s scope of work.
“The Forest Service is generally focused on forest lands, but the need for forest restoration goes beyond federal lands and outpaces the Forest Service’s resources,” Selig said.
“That’s why the U.S. Forest Service is all about shared stewardship to tackle the problem. Everybody has to participate.”
He said that individuals who live in fire prone ecosystems need to be responsible for reducing risk on their own lands.
During times of active fire suppression, firefighters might cut down trees to try to save homes. However, he said taking proactive measures provides better protection, including defensible space around the home and roofs made of fire-resistant material.
The consensus is that it’s vital to do work across boundaries to help protect the community and its resources. Marquis noted that protection extends to the lives of firefighters, wildlife habitat, homes, power supplies, the Arkansas River and other water sources.
Marquis and Selig said this effort aims to cut the wildfire risk by 50 percent, a notable benefit to both structures and natural resources.
The recently developed Chaffee County Community Wildfire Protection Plan identified 30,000 acres in total. 10,000 acres are on private land and 20,000 are on Forest Service and BLM public lands.
Marquis said, “The wildfire protection plan uses computer modeling to map the level of risk and identify the right areas to treat for the highest cost efficiency and community benefit.”
The goal for Chaffee County is to treat these identified private and public acres between now and 2030.
Selig said the reason National Forest Foundation is involved is “to strategically invest the funds on the ground. (National Forest Foundation) is a fund manager, fundraiser and project implementer.”
In addition to funds for private land work, National Forest Foundation will raise money to support the mitigation work on federal land as well.
The group already working on private land outreach, to identify treatment and program set-up, includes the Colorado State Forest Service, Salida-based woodland firefighter school Colorado Firecamp and American Forest Foundation.
Selig said this already established group is making Chaffee Treats a living program and lending support to the large-scale effort.
Chaffee Treats is a forest health and wildfire mitigation program developed by the Envision Forest Health Council, a group of 35 community leaders that formed in 2020 to implement the county’s wildfire protection plan.
The goal of Chaffee Treats is to encourage fuels reduction on high-priority private property, as identified by the protection plan.
“Once Chaffee Treats has a management program together, it will be time to implement … hire loggers and other contractors to cut the trees and help treat the lands,” Selig said.
This is when National Forest Foundation will step into the picture.
“The Upper Arkansas Forest Fund that (National Forest Foundation) is managing is going to fund Chaffee Treats, additional federal land treatments in Chaffee, and soon, private and federal lands in Lake. We are trying to incorporate the work in Lake County into the overall effort,” he said.
“We are looking to treat the landscape to prevent large scale, high-intensity fire across the valley. We are not going to completely eliminate the risk of fire with our efforts. There’s always a risk of fire here. Although the problem is very big, we are going to make the best effort to protect what’s most important.”
Chaffee County has done a great job, Selig said, in moving the needle with a great amount of energy. He said that National Forest Foundation wants to help make it a success and that he is feeling positive and inspired.