The forest restoration practices taking place under the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative aren’t new — not the controlled burns, nor the creation of fuel breaks to slow wildfires, nor the inspection and mitigation of land and structures at risk for fire.
Nonetheless, three years after its conception, the initiative is breaking new ground. Strong, committed partnerships are helping convince many locals of the importance of the work, creating supportive advocates for the initiative’s next stages.
Recognizing that conditions in unmanaged forests were making wildfires more dangerous, the NWTF and the USDA Forest Service coconvened RMRI in 2019 to model large-scale restoration through the conservation practice of shared stewardship, which spreads forest health responsibility among diverse stakeholders.
They identified four shared values — forests and wildlife, recreation, water and communities — that are core to the initiative. Three project areas within Colorado were selected, recruiting dozens of traditional and not-so-traditional partners, including water utilities, fire protection districts, state and local conservation groups, governments, law enforcement agencies, and even neighborhood homeowners’ associations.
RMRI’s primary focus is restoring 310,000 acres in the Southwest Colorado Landscape, a 750,000-acre stretch that includes the city of Durango, McPhee Reservoir and the Dolores River. RMRI also committed to two more project areas where shared stewardship had already taken hold.
The actual restoration work gained momentum in year two, but the real progress came in the form of partnerships, plans and processes for prioritizing RMRI’s values. As RMRI refines the processes and improves the landscapes, those examples will serve as a collective model for expanding beyond Colorado.
Successful outreach by partners in the Upper South Platte project area resulted in public support for controlled burns in 2021. Such social license is needed to ultimately restore 150,000 acres within the 885,000-acre project area — 60,000 of which are to be treated by prescribed fire.
The project area stretches from the Front Range of the Rockies, in Pike National Forest, and extends east to the southwest Denver suburbs. RMRI selected the area because of its dense population and water. The Upper South Platte River watershed serves two million Denver metro customers, and the Forest Service considers the South Platte River Corridor a powerful recreational draw and economic driver due to its fishing, kayaking and trails. Success will amount to more than acres restored.
Upper South Platte partners aim to educate people on wildfires, assess the fire risk to structures, maintain thousands of acres of fuel breaks and increase agencies’ fire qualifications.
Accomplishments in 2021 included 1,000-plus acres of controlled burns and the public acceptance to do more. A 40-acre controlled burn near one mountain community brought together “cooperators” who wanted to learn from the process, said Brian Banks, Forest Service South Platte district ranger, a member of RMRI’s leadership team.
Asked during a meeting of the leadership team in February 2022 how the Upper South Platte partners got the social license to implement prescribed fire, Banks said public meetings provided the spark.
“As community members learn about prescribed fire, they share that message on social media platforms like Facebook and Next Door,” Banks said.
RMRI partners in the marquee project area of Southwest Colorado carried out 90 restoration projects, restoring more than 14,000 acres across federal, state, tribal and private lands, including more than 200 miles of trails.
They, too, surveyed stakeholders to help prioritize work, first getting input on a subdivided map of the project area from 46 organizations, then distributing it more broadly and receiving 1,800 comments.
RMRI’s Southwest Colorado Steering Committee logged progress in all four aspects of shared stewardship. Numerous partners contributed investments and action, including fire-risk modeling, trail construction, securing grants for wildfire protection and assessing wildfire risks to homes.
The groups working on RMRI’s Upper Arkansas project area took part in a survey that drew on RMRI’s four values to help prioritize restoration work.
The area encompassing the headwaters of the Arkansas River — the most rafted river in the U.S. — already represented a model of shared stewardship when RMRI chose to support the restoration of 40,000 acres within the 900,000-acre project area.
The survey-based approach earned the initiative more buy-in from locals, according to the six-member leadership team of federal, state, county and nonprofit officials.
Among the leaders were county commissioners from two counties within the project area, which occupies portions of the San Isabel National Forest in the Sawatch Range, pierced through with “fourteeners,” or mountain peaks above 14,000 feet.
Project leaders said the map-making proved helpful as a “community outreach tool,” and they expected restoration to accelerate now that “partners and the community have coalesced” around a 10-year plan.
As of the end of 2021, the project area had restored 3,000 acres, with another 21,000 acres in the “planning pipeline.” Funding worth $19 million was in place, enough to restore about 10,000 acres. The fundraising method of leveraging a sales tax to attract grants and other contributions also serves as a model for other communities.
The NWTF brought on Kate McIntire as RMRI coordinator in 2021, and the western work in Colorado to refine shared stewardship is expected to pay off as the NWTF expands the practice under its emerging Western Shared Stewardship Initiative. The outcomes may also bolster the Forest Service’s 10-year Wildfire Crisis Strategy, announced in January 2022, to address hazardous wildfire fuels on as much as 50 million acres of public and private lands. Several priority landscapes identified by the Forest Service include parts of the RMRI targeted areas.
The NWTF is convinced that such large-scale work, which crosses ownership boundaries, represents the future of conservation. The initiatives in the West are meant to help the organization achieve the goals of its America’s Western Wildlands region: protecting the forests, water and prairies of the West.
“With over 50 current stewardship agreements, the Forest Service is the NWTF’s strongest agency partner,” the NWTF said in a statement of support for the Forest Service’s new wildfire strategy. Approaching 40 years of partnering together, the NWTF and the Forest Service collaborate “on national forests in every Forest Service region in the country to enhance wild turkey habitat and forest health.”