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Opinion

Pritchett: In the wake of megafires, forest restoration also nurtures our souls

Volunteerism can help heal nature, but physical work reminiscent of the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps has the power to heal the individual as well

The Poudre Canyon calls to me—most of my free time this summer has been spent exploring this area of northern Colorado. For one thing, it’s the canyon nearest my home, and the one I have the longest history with, but I’m also am fascinated by the recovery from what was Colorado’s largest wildfire last year, the Cameron Peak fire, which, combined with the nearby East Troublesome fires, burned more than 400,000 acres. 

Many of my favorite hikes remain closed, others still smell like smoke, and the black silhouettes of trees and the dark ashy Poudre River stand out as obvious signs of the trauma that started about a year ago. There are less obvious consequences too—everything from damage to our watersheds, to “Lefty,” one particular black bear with a hurt left paw that locals presume was burned in the fire. There’s also the invisible but very real trigger of it all: Our nervous systems no longer consider campfire smoke a positive.  

Laura Pritchett

Let’s face it: Last year was miserable. 

I doubt any Coloradoan escaped the orangey-glow of smoke-filled skies—and remember those burned pine needles raining down on us? Many of us, including myself, had go-bags packed, which remained packed for so long—the fire burned for five months, starting in August and not labeled as “controlled” until January. Some of my friends were evacuated multiple, long-term times, and on top of that, finding a place to relocate wasn’t all that easy with COVID smoldering, too. 

It was traumatizing to people, plants, waterways, and animals. To suggest otherwise or put some easy-healing spin on it would be some form of sad toxic positivity, and an honest assessment further requires that we accept  this is the “new normal.” We live in an era of megafires and multi-fires. The Cameron Peak Fire, for example, became the first in Colorado history to burn more than 200,000 acres; prior to 2002, there was never a fire larger than 100,000 acres in Colorado. But they’re not just big, they’re plentiful: I remember the week that five new fires started in my area alone; an incredible 1,016 wildfires burned in Colorado last year.

And this is not just a story of our state, obviously. The NIFC—the National Interagency Fire Center—reports there were 46,000 wildfires that burned eight million acres in 2020, an astonishing two million more acres more than the 10-year average. Moreover, many of these were “high consumption fires,” meaning the soil was sterilized and regrowth will be delayed. Like the pandemic, these megafires present a new type of suffering—both for land and humans. 

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All this makes me think of those air-quality reports—the ones that told us that the air was “Hazardous,” or, if we were lucky, “Moderate,” and maybe even “Good.” Those strike me as a good metaphor for the realistic, clear-eyed direction we could go in the largest sense, too—in terms of our forest management, our land health, and our wellness. Ultimately, we must ask: Where do we go from here? How do we heal? What does that even look like? How do we get from a hazardous situation to a better one?  

As wildfires continue to alter landscapes and impact human and ecological values, we must first look ahead to better land management practices—prescribed burns, thinning, fuel reduction, fire resiliency, and Aldo Leopold’s idea of “intelligent tinkering,” where we make forests more resilient to climate change via smart restorations of natural landscapes. We can also look to Indigenous wisdoms on this matter, as these communities were the historical land managers.

Much of that is in the sphere of land managers and owners, but there are tangible things anyone can do now. Three nonprofits stand out to me—the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers and Wildlands Restoration Volunteers are two that currently seek help and donations in rebuilding the nearly 145 miles of impacted trails in this area, offering both trail work days for those who are willing to get their hands dirty, and GoFundMe sites for those who prefer to stay at home. Currently, WRV is doing boots-on-ground work at the Elkhorn Creek Trail, which is cram-packed with wildflowers, and which is one of the few areas where recreation is being allowed. 

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The third, the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed, has also played a major role in the recovery process, and its Citizen Science program encourages anyone to assist in water quality data collecting and monitoring. As a watershed-wide organization, CPRW’s efforts are far-reaching; look for helicopters doing aerial mulch drops this summer. All three organizations work together to restore our wild places in Colorado; they model the supportive network that is a necessary approach to healing in general. 

It strikes me that volunteerism and hard work won’t just be good for the trails and watersheds — they will be good for us. As we help nature heal, we might heal, too—there is co-creation in this process of restoration. History provides excellent examples of this — I’ve always thought the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps was excellent in more ways than one. The program transformed the bodies of young men as they transformed the landscape with their labor. It was a reshaping of a body politic, literally. 

We have the same opportunity here. The physical labor of restoration could help our psyches and souls. Being of service is, after all, one of the major ways out of a funk. There is an inherent mutualism in healing.

I’m no Pollyanna—the fires will happen again. But in the meantime, I can take note of the hyper-green new growth, the trail work, and chat with the neighbors who seem a little closer and connected. A new and clear-eyed gaze at avenues to wellness might start with a hike in the mountains and a call to a volunteer organization. Today, when I picked up my phone to inquire about just that, my phone also told me that the air quality is actually listed as “Good,” which gives me hope that during times of respite, we can work towards a healthier future. 

Laura Pritchett is the author of five novels and winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction, the WILLA Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the High Plains Book Award, and several Colorado Book Awards. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University. More at www.laurapritchett.com.



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