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Opinion: The West’s sickly, bloated forests are full of carbon, ready to burn

Restoring them to health will require collaboration at all levels of public and private management

Colorado is famous for the year-round outdoor adventures people travel from across the globe to participate in. Hot summer days though, are quickly becoming synonymous with poor air quality and impaired visibility.

Severiano DeSoto

A big reason for that is our forests.

Stressed by severe drought conditions, forests across the West — degraded and bloated with ready-to-burn fuel after years of suppression strategies — have fed wildfires so severe they are altering weather patterns. Smoke from these fires has reached as far as the East Coast.

Excessive fuel for wildfires also poses another threat: the release of greenhouse gases from wildfires will impede our ability to meet our climate-change commitments. Unless we find a way to reduce fuel loads and restore the health of our forests, the emissions from wildfires can offset gains in our fight against climate change.

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To restore the health of these valuable resources, it will take the collaboration of various local, state and federal agencies, as well as public and private stakeholders to mitigate the threats from severe wildfires.  

In the natural cycle of ecological balance, forests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They occasionally burn, yes, but renewed forests act as carbon “sinks” that drain the element from the air into the ground.

Colorado forests, however, already are saturated with carbon and don’t remove as much from the atmosphere as they otherwise might, according to a 2019 study. That poses a real threat to efforts to curtail carbon emission. 

How much can wildfires contribute to greenhouse gases? According to the California Air Resources Board, it is estimated carbon emissions from fires in 2020 accounted for roughly a quarter of the total emissions in that state.

Emissions from wildfires generally are considered part of the natural carbon cycle. The unnatural part is the amount of fuel available to burn in our forests. Historic drought conditions propelled by a changing climate will remain a threat to Colorado and the rest of the west for decades to come. 

Restoring the health of our forests is no small task. Millions of acres across the state require fuel load reductions, either through manual reduction or prescribed burns. Intentionally setting fires in severe drought conditions is a risky endeavor; prescribed burns run the risk of breaking containment and causing severe damage.

However, after forests burn in a wildfire, reforesting a burned patch will take time. New and young forests continue to naturally emit carbon for years. Reforested areas only become a carbon sink once they reach maturity. Restoring the health of our forest systems and improving their existing ability to remove carbon is the best path forward.  

Restoration, on this scale, requires collaboration, not just among various federal agencies but also state and local governments, private landowners, recreationists, and businesses across the state.

Luckily, an example of this collaboration already exists in Colorado. The Colorado Front Range Landscape Restoration Initiative has brought together various stakeholders to research, plan, and adapt new treatments. This effort has treated more than 30,000 acres on the Front Range. The next step is the expansion of the program to cover the restoration of 1.5 million more acres across the front-range. Without collaboration, research, and engagement from communities across the Front Range, this initiative would not be possible.  

While this program has its flaws, multiple studies have highlighted the challenges and potential solutions to adapting this framework to new or more complex areas. Building trust among stakeholders and establishing a shared vision is key to successful collaboration. Developing and driving the implementation of new strategies in the complex bureaucracies that govern natural resources requires significant social capital.  

The growing concern regarding climate change provides the necessary support for implementing new strategies to restore our forests. Earlier this year, Gov. Polis released the roadmap for Colorado to reduce our carbon emissions by half, during the next decade. With Colorado forests in such a primed state to burn, we will fall short of these goals unless we reduce the amount of carbon fuels stored in them. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Threats from climate change are driving more people to action across the world. The adage of “think globally, act locally” requires that we address these threats here and now.

Degraded, drought-stricken forests are a threat, but they also represent an opportunity to fight back against climate change. We must engage in this process, either through volunteering with the forest service or petitioning lawmakers at all levels to push for an expansion of forest landscape restoration projects to new areas.

The time is now for Coloradans to stake their claim as part of the climate solution by working to restore the forests we rely on for clean water, recreation, and livelihoods.  


Severiano DeSoto, of Denver, is a graduate student at the University of Denver in Environmental Policy and Management.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggest writers or give feedback at opinion@coloradosun.com.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com


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