Conservation Corner: Wildfire and Watershed Management Planning

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Hillside of pine trees, with many dying due to drought and bark beetle kill.

A century ago, how many trees would you have found in an acre of Ponderosa Pine forest in Colorado?  The answer is 20 to 50 trees.  Colorado’s forests were historically more open and diverse than they are now. Today, the average tree density in our Ponderosa Pine Forests ranges from 300 to 900 trees!  What changed?  Fire suppression.  

According to Weston Toll, Watershed Program Specialist for the Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS), the US Forest Service had a policy of putting all fires out until the late 1980s.  Colorado Cattlemen’s Ag Water NetWORK recently hosted a webinar featuring a presentation from Weston on wildfire and watershed management. Ponderosa pine forests thrive on low to moderate intensity fires every 5 – 25 years.  Conversely, Lodgepole Pine forests require higher intensity fires to regenerate. The wildfires currently burning emphasize the need for more aggressive forest management. 

Colorado’s forested watersheds supply water to 80 percent of Colorado’s population.  Post-fire impacts on water supplies can include debris flows, clogged irrigation and municipal water infrastructure, degraded water quality and fish kills. The costs of wildfire, including firefighting and property damage ranges from $600 per acre in remote areas to $37,000 per acre where more structures are present. 

In contrast, fire mitigation work typically costs $1,500 to $2,500 per acre. Forest thinning and low intensity, controlled burning keeps ground fuels in check and create a more diverse and healthy forest. Source water protection and wildfire risk mitigation are important parts of watershed management planning.  The White River Integrated Water Initiative offers an opportunity to integrate wildfire protection elements that represent community needs.  Access the full presentation and highlights at, as well as CCA’s new video on wildfire and watershed planning. 

Phil Brink is consulting coordinator of CCA’s Ag Water NetWORK.

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