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Conservation partners target 300,000 acres in Southwest Colorado

Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative unites wildlife protection with wildfire mitigation
Kara Chadwick, San Juan National Forest supervisor, speaks when Sen. Michael Bennet and other members of the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative visited Durango in September. RMRI brings together public agencies, nonprofits and corporations to restore more than 300,000 acres of forests in Southwest Colorado. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Wildfires and wildlife seemingly don’t mix, but in Southwest Colorado they do.

Since its inception in 2019, the Southwest region of the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative has partnered wildlife conservation with wildfire mitigation, creating a unique model for how public land agencies, conservation groups and other stakeholders collaborate to restore forests and protect wildlife and vulnerable communities.

“Everything is connected in the sense that the way our forests have been managed over the past century has a direct impact on both wildfire risk, as well as wildlife populations. There’s no separation between wildfire risk and wildlife,” said Danny Margoles, coordinator for the Dolores Watershed Resilient Forest Collaborative, a member organization of RMRI.

The National Wild Turkey Federation and the U.S. Forest Service convened RMRI as a pilot project under the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service’s 2018 shared stewardship initiative, which sought community-driven solutions for declining forest health across much of the West.

“This was a strategy from the Secretary of Agriculture (Sonny Perdue) that really acknowledged that we need to build stronger partnerships; we need to work together more because the threat of wildfire, insects (and) disease is far outpacing our ability to work to mitigate those threats,” said Jason Lawhon, Southwest Colorado program manager for RMRI.

RMRI brought together more than 40 public agencies, nonprofits and corporations to develop a novel approach to addressing forest health in three regions of Colorado over a decade.

The group came up with four “values” – communities, clean water, forests and wildlife, and recreation – to guide their work.

A firefighter lights a prescribed burn near Chicken Creek in San Juan National Forest. RMRI has focused on wildfire mitigation projects, in part because studies have shown forest thinning and underbrush clearing help to restore forests. (Courtesy of Dolores Watershed Resilient Forest Collaborative)

RMRI identified a 750,000-acre area (1,172 square miles) in Southwest Colorado along the U.S. Highway 160 corridor from Bayfield to Cortez and up to Dove Creek and San Juan National Forest as a place where all four values intersect.

The partners chose the region for their most ambitious project, which seeks to restore more than 300,000 acres of public and private land.

“One of the reasons Southwest Colorado was chosen is because there was a lot of collaboration already occurring,” said Patt Dorsey, director of Mountain West conservation operations for the National Wild Turkey Federation.

“I think of it as a combination between priority and opportunity,” Lawhon said.

“If you think of recreation (and) communities, this is the highest density in Southwest Colorado. If you think of the wildlife habitat, there’s all kinds of important wildlife species and habitat here. And then in water, (Southwest Colorado) is feeding a lot of downstream states. There’s a convergence of those values here,” Lawhon said. “But then there’s also a demonstrated ability to do this kind of work.”

Sen. Michael Bennet, center, met with members of the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative and local fire departments in Durango in September to discuss his proposed Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act. The legislation would allocate $60 billion to the USDA, the parent agency of the Forest Service, local governments and collaborative groups to support forest and watershed restoration and wildfire mitigation projects. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

RMRI has focused almost exclusively on wildfire mitigation projects in the past two years, in part because studies have shown forest thinning and underbrush clearing are among the most effective tools for restoring forests.

Wildfire mitigation also benefits all four of the group’s priorities, and at its core, RMRI is utilitarian in its mission, meaning it aims to maximize its work by doing the greatest good for communities, clean water, forests and wildlife, and recreation with each project.

“You see people come to the table more and more trying to find those areas where we can really benefit one another,” Lawhon said. “We don’t have enough people, we don’t have enough funding to do this work that needs to be done at the scale that we need to do it. We have to be strategic in looking for those places where we can pool our resources (and) our expertise together and make investments that are important for not just one organization or interest.”

RMRI has led wildlife conservation groups to partner with public agencies and organizations devoted to wildfire and forest health in a first-of-its-kind partnership.

“RMRI is important because we can’t get the work done alone anymore. We need to work together,” Dorsey said.

“(Collaborative efforts are) the way going forward at a time when we need to conserve wildlife habitat more than ever,” she said. “We need to be working with groups that we’ve never worked with before.”

Removing trees and other vegetation from forests might seem like it would harm wildlife, but wildfire mitigation creates healthier habitat for animals such as turkey and deer.

“More resilient forests promote healthy wildlife populations,” said Adrian Archuleta, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and CPW’s representative for RMRI’s southwest project. “By doing some of these treatments, even if they are for wildfire mitigation, you’re opening up the forest and the floor so that more vegetation can grow.”

An unhealthy and untreated forest in Lone Pine Vegetation Project area of San Juan National Forest. Dense forests and thick underbrush make for poor habitats for animals like turkeys and mule deer. (Courtesy of Dolores Watershed Resilient Forest Collaborative)
A treated and healthy forest in Lone Pine Vegetation Project area of San Juan National Forest. Removing dense trees and underbrush allows more light to reach the forest floor and stimulate the growth of grasses and other forage for deer and elk during the winter, said Adrian Archuleta with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. (Courtesy of Dolores Watershed Resilient Forest Collaborative)

The added light that reaches the forest floor spurs the growth of grasses and other vegetation that is crucial come winter time when deer and elk are searching for food, he said.

The National Wild Turkey Federation has an acronym for unhealthy forests: WTT.

“WTT means it’s way too thick,” Dorsey said. “That’s more often the case than it being way too thin.”

Turkeys need mature ponderosa pines, wet meadows and a healthy understory with grasses and wildflowers, according to Dorsey.

Thinning and burning dense forests helps restore that habitat.

It also benefits other animals such as mule deer.

“When you do projects like these, they create a natural mosaic on the ground and provide good cover, good forage habitat and good areas for mule deer to hang out in the winter,” said Shawn Blajszczak, Colorado and Wyoming regional director for the Mule Deer Foundation.

The Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative uses mechanical forest thinning and prescribed burns to create healthy forests. (Courtesy of Dolores Watershed Resilient Forest Collaborative)

“The main goal of most fire management is not to prevent all forest fires. It’s to prevent them from becoming uncontrollably huge forest fires, which benefits wildlife because the fringes of most areas are where the majority of wildlife flourish,” Blajszczak said.

“The bottom line is no matter what wildlife species you’re talking about, the best thing to do is to make the habitat more resilient and healthy,” Dorsey said.

Bringing together so many organizations has allowed RMRI to expand the habitat that it restores. Forests and wildlife know no boundaries or jurisdictions, and by partnering, public agencies and private companies can tackle forest health across federal, state and private lands.

“There’s a greater recognition that groups need to collaborate to work across management boundaries,” Margoles said. “It’s really thinking bigger than specific agencies or organizations. In many ways, the greatest outcome (of RMRI) is that there’s a vision that spans a much larger area than there has been in the past.”

RMRI’s collaborative conservation model appears ready to take off.

In October 2020, Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order creating the Colorado Outdoor Regional Partnerships Initiative, which supports coalitions working to protect the state’s natural resources and provide equitable access to outdoor recreation opportunities.

The west side of Durango has been threatened several times by wildfire. The Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative plans a project that benefits its values of communities, clean water, forests and wildlife, and recreation. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Sen. Michael Bennet visited Durango in September to meet with RMRI members and discuss his proposed Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act, which would allocate $40 billion to the USDA, the parent agency of the Forest Service, to support forest and watershed restoration and wildfire mitigation projects. An additional $20 billion would go to local governments and collaborative groups to address the same issues.

“What RMRI is really helping (us) to do is tell this shared story of our collective investments and how they all fit together. We’re improving that bigger picture view of why each of (RMRI’s values and partners) is absolutely critical and important, but also how they fit into the whole,” Lawhon said. “Over time, we’re going to see that lead to a lot of opportunity for people here on public and private lands to get a lot of work done.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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