My career path is covered with bear droppings! I was always destined to be a “Smokey-Bear-type” of some sort.
In 1991, I worked in Boulder for Colorado Parks and Wildlife as a district wildlife manager. I protected wildlife by hazing mountain lions to reduce conflicts with pets and people, writing tickets and counting everything from elk herds to great blue herons. We managed wildlife sustainably, before “sustainable” was common in the everyday lexicon.
As a hunter, I also understood the seemingly counterintuitive notion that hunting deer is good for deer herds. Active management is heavily regulated and drives sustainability. For example, when using hunting as a management tool for deer, one has to consider that many diseases, including chronic wasting disease, are density dependent; that is, the higher the deer population, the higher the infection rate and mortality. Understanding population dynamics and the species helps wildlife managers find the sweet spot between too many and not enough. This is sustainability.
While I was managing wildlife, city leaders were buying open space to protect a tiny, white orchid, Spiranthes or “Ute Ladies' Tresses.” One purchase was promptly surrounded by a chain-link fence to save the orchids. This prohibited mowing, winter grazing by wildlife and other light disturbances. Within a few years, the orchids were gone. Without the proper management, the orchids were shaded out of existence by competing plants.
No action doesn’t equate to no consequence. That is true for deer, orchids and forests.
Conservation or preservation? The differences are nuanced but important. Preservation lets ecosystems function without human interference. Conservation regulates human interference, actively managing or stewarding our natural resources for a desired outcome.
Like deer, forest health improves with forest management. Forest management is heavily regulated, and it works best when it’s science-based, considers societal goals and has a full complement of management tools. Tools for forest management include: fire suppression, prescribed and managed fires, mechanical and hand thinning, herbicides and logging. You also have an impact on the land by deciding to take no management action.
Just like the tools you have in your home repair kit, one tool doesn’t work for everything. A crescent wrench is necessary and valuable, but some jobs require needle-nosed pliers or a hammer. In reality, most jobs require multiple tools: a wrench, pliers, vice grips and a hammer.
In a forest, prescribed fire is necessary and valuable, but sometimes fuels are too dense or conditions aren’t suitable. To achieve the desired goal, multiple tools are necessary — thinning, burning, logging and herbicides, among others.
According to the Colorado State Forest Service, there are about 24.4 million acres of forested land in Colorado. Much of that is dense, dry and at risk from uncharacteristic wildfire. In 2019, Colorado was managing about 40,000 acres per year with fuels and forest health treatments. Wildfires, beetles and disease were indiscriminately “managing” 400,000 acres per year. Other Western states from Oregon to Arizona are experiencing increasing tree mortality due to climate, overstocking, insect infestation and disease.
We don’t need to treat every acre of forest; beetles are native species and not every natural fire is bad. Yet if we want healthier forests and to reduce massive wildfires, the scale of the work in front of us is gargantuan.
With a full toolbox comes flexibility, adaptability and capability. Flexibility to react to changing conditions. Adaptability to use new and better science. And capability to address threats, protect communities and provide timber and clean water for the public.
Going down the rabbit hole and placing blame is time wasted. The combination of climate change, fire suppression, past management decisions, beetles, disease and other factors are intersecting at this point in our history. Today, we have more people living in these susceptible areas on the forest boundary, and, now more than ever, wildlife habitat desperately needs conservation.
We didn’t create this problem overnight and won’t solve it overnight. The solutions will be as nuanced and interrelated as the problem itself. We need the full toolbox. One of the biggest issues for us to solve is, “Can we restore our forests at a scale commensurate with the threat?”
Theodore Roosevelt said, “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.”
I believe we can move our forests toward healthier conditions, conserve wildlife habitat and sustain recreation. Forest health is not a Forest Service problem. It is our collective problem to solve, from Washington State to Washington, D.C. A problem for all, takes all to solve, and it takes all the tools in the toolbox.
Patt Dorsey is the director of Conservation Operations for the National Wild Turkey Federation. The NWTF’s mission is delivered primarily through habitat enhancement and conservation projects. In the West, the NWTF is working with the Forest Service and other partners to improve forests. For example, the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative in Colorado is focused on increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration work. See www.restoringtherockies.org for more.