This has been a remarkable summer and fall and not in a good way. We are dealing with a pandemic the likes of which have not been seen for a century. We are having a reckoning of centuries of racial injustice. And we are voting to determine the future of our country.
All are serious matters for every American.On a millennial scale, our forests and ecosystems are dealing with changes that may affect us for generations to come. It is such a gradual, insidious change that many Coloradoans may not notice nor connect the dots. I am talking about wildfire, forest mortality and climate change.
As of October 21, over 640,000 acres of Colorado forests have burned this year; the most in state history*. With but one respite, all summer and fall we were besieged with smoke, oppressive heat and murky skies. Most of the fires are still burning. It is the same throughout the west. As of this writing, the Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch fires have assumed first, second and third places in largest mega-fires in state history. The 1960s through the 1990s saw less than 20,000 acres burned per year, while the 2000s and 2010s saw 85,000 and 100,000 acres burned per year, respectively (https://csfs.colostate.edu/media/sites/22/2019/03/FINAL-307714_ForestRpt-2018-www.pdf).
All of our large fires have occurred in the 21st century. Remember Spring Creek - 2018, Black Forest - 2013, Waldo Canyon - 2012, Hayman - 2002. By the middle of the century, mega-fires are expected to triple in frequency (https://climate.gov/news-features/event-tracker/colorado-summer-drought-wildfires-and-smoke-2020). At 640,000 acres/year, this could mean 6.4 million acres/decade. 3.1 million acres have already burned since 2001. With 24 million acres in Colorado forests, this burn rate may not be sustainable. Our children may well see a transformation of forests that evolved over ten thousand years.
Changing climate is a major factor in forest mortality. As of mid-October, 90% of the state is in severe or greater drought, and 59% in extreme or exceptional drought (see figure). This has been the driest year since 2012 and is on track to be the second driest in recorded history according to the Colorado Climate Center. A related factor is the rise of bark beetle mortality that has killed or impacted over 21% of our forests and contributed to dry fuels. Most of our state-wide fuels are down to less than 5% moisture, and with red flag warnings, are a powder keg still waiting to burn this fire season. Only heavy snows will bring relief for this year. On October 21, due to wildfire, the Arapahoe-Roosevelt National Forest closed access to its lands in 5 front range counties.
As we celebrate our 25th anniversary, Wild Connections is greatly concerned with protecting our forests and the watersheds, wildlife and quiet recreation they provide. As the landscape warms and dries, and wildfire and insect pests claim the forests, there are hidden places on the landscape that will stay cooler and wetter, in valleys, canyons and riparian areas. We have developed a Climate Corridors and Refugia model and maps that identify these places in our geographic area that must be protected to enable our ecosystems to persist or migrate. These refugia may one day, serve as seeds to restore ecosystems hanging in the balance. See related story for an indoor outing opportunity.
*Fire figures change daily
Leave Only (Small) Footprints
by Wild Connections Board Member, Karl Ford
Click the image to co to the Calculator at the Naature Conservancy
Leave no trace policy teaches us to take only photographs and leave only footprints. In our publications, we emphasize traveling lightly on the environment and restoring damaged ecosystems. But speaking of footprints, have you heard about carbon footprints and do you know what your carbon footprint is? In this article, I use greenhouse gases (GHG) and carbon interchangeably.
Before tackling that question, it is good to remind ourselves that climate change is caused by atmospheric, human-caused GHG and truly poses an existential threat to our lifestyle as well as our planetary ecosystems. In your lifetime or your children’s lifetime, it will be time to pay the piper. The choices we make today (and all those yesterdays) will determine the legacy we leave to future generations. At this stage in my life, I think about that legacy a lot. Stabilizing world population will help, but we must change lifestyle too. Will we have enough water, enough food, our wild places and species; will we be inundated with climate refugees from our own or other countries? These are already major problems around the world, and like coronavirus, we are not isolated by the oceans.
Regardless of what our politicians do or don’t do about the carbon load on our planet, we can choose to be responsible for our own personal lifestyle choices and our contribution to the GHG load. The average American lifestyle is among the highest in the world emitting 16 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (methane and other gases contribute) per person! For comparison, your car weighs around 2 tons. Many other countries’ per capita emissions are much, much less, from 5.6 tons in the UK to even less than 1 ton. I’m not saying you must forego children, live in a tipi and give up your car, but there may be much you can do. According to the IPCC, we need to reduce the carbon equivalents by half to meet the Paris Agreement.
There are multiple online carbon footprint (CF) estimators out there including ones by EPA and Nature Conservancy. (I have noticed inconsistencies in various estimates due to assumptions). I like the latter because it is more complete. There are about five major sectors: personal transportation (your car), air travel, home heating and electrical, food, and consumption of goods and services. I am fortunate to have an electric automobile; I carpool and combine trips and try to keep my mileage down to 8000 miles/year (below average). I’m reducing my airplane trips because I indulged last year (no one is perfect, right?). I have solar electricity for my house and car and our house is small and energy-efficient. I recycle. Finally, I am becoming more of a vegetarian, although not strict vegetarian. Meat, especially beef, is outrageously high in carbon emissions to produce. In fact, livestock production (especially beef) contributes more than 14% of global GHG emissions, about equal to the transportation or home heating or electricity! (Note, in the US, figures differ and transportation emits about 29% due to our “affluence”). With my changes, my CF is around 11 tons and I hope to still reduce it further. I am considering a passive solar remodel to the house. I encourage you to check out the calculator and see where you can lighten your load on nature: https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/carbon-footprint-calculator/
What is Wild Connections doing to advocate for a lower CF? Of course, except in the pandemic, we carpool to meetings, hikes and projects, and may do tree planting projects. But specifically, we adopted a policy of supporting reductions of fossil fuel production GHG on public lands to meet the Colorado Climate Plan which is a 26% reduction in GHG by 2020, a 50% reduction by 2030 and a 90% reduction by 2050.
And finally, we must have political leadership to do their part to help us get there. Vote!
Wild Connections Conservation Plan Update
The Wild Connections Conservation Plan (WCCP) is a science-based management scenario for the Pike-San Isabel National Forest and adjacent public lands.
It was published in 2006 after more than a decade of on-the-ground mapping, stakeholder workshops, and mapping. The WCCP is now almost thirteen years old. Now is the time to update the plan!
Click the image for our WCCP Revision Info Sheet.
Wild Connections (then called the Upper Arkansas and South Platte Project) was formed in 1995 as part of a coalition of organizations that embraced the vision of a network of protected wildlands across North America. Wild Connections addressed that vision by mapping roadless areas in the Arkansas and South Platte mountain watersheds, where the USFS Pike-San Isabel National Forest (PSI) and the BLM Royal Gorge Field Office (RGFO) Resource Area are located.
From 1995 to 2001, the boundaries of more than 100 roadless areas were mapped, covering thousands of acres of wildlands. Written reports with photos and annotated topo maps became the basis of an extensive inventory repository. We also acquired Geographic Information Systems software so that digital data and maps could be produced. This was accomplished by 150 volunteers, and augmented in 2000 with paid inventory staff.
In parallel with the mapping Wild Connections began to create the Wild Connections Conservation Plan. The objective was to influence to the Pike San Isabel forest plan revision.
The WCCP was created based on input from seven stakeholder workshops. It was designed based on mapping and other biological data, the use of conservation biology principles, and reserve design methods. The plan consists of a management map and a document describing the land and how the areas should be managed. The map shows a series roadless core reserves, many of which are recommended for Wilderness designation, connected by wildlife linkages. The concept is applied both as forest-wide management recommendations and as place-based specific management. The WCCP was distributed in June 2006.
The Wild Connections Conservation Plan is now almost thirteen years old. Many changes to the upper Arkansas and South Platte region have occurred. In addition, changes to agency planning rules and new agency guidance have affected the Plan’s usefulness. The Wild Connections Conservation Plan needs to be updated to address new factors, most notably the increasing need to address climate change.
Right now is a decisive time for our wildlife, forests, canyons and meadows. Climate change is real. 2018 is trending to be one of the hottest years on record and the 2018 water year snowpack was well below average as of March. Wildlife and even plant life are on the move as changing climatic conditions force them to shift locations to maintain their preferred habitat. This movement is often impeded by manmade barriers: roads, commercial developments, areas that have been intensively logged, mined, or drilled for oil and natural gas; and simply by an intensified human presence on the land as our state population grows. However, central Colorado is fortunate to have many large roadless areas that are potential havens for nature, for biodiversity, for fully functional ecosystems, for our native plants and animals.
But here are the big questions...
Which of these areas will be the most resilient to withstand the changes in our climate?
Which will provide enough space unaffected by human activity for summer and winter range, for birthing and migration?
Which will provide enough time – decades and longer – for plants and animals to exercise their innate ability to adapt to changing conditions?
Where will rare species of wildlife, from lynx to butterflies, have the best chance to flourish?
Colorado Statewide Time Series Snowpack Summary as of Sept 2018. Image NRCS.
What Needs to be Done?
Wild Connections is working on an answer to that question. Wild Connections has a 23 year track record of creating detailed inventories of Forest Service roadless areas and Bureau of Land Management areas with wilderness qualities. We have been on the ground out there, and have achieved many striking successes using the Wild Connections Conservation Plan to advocate for taking good care of the public lands that belong to all of us. In addition, conservation biologists and land managers have developed methods for identifying areas that will be resilient in the face of climate change.
Because this is an effort which we intend to undertake in addition to our current wildlands restoration and advocacy activities, we are creating a special Wild Connections Conservation Plan Revision Fund. Donations to the Fund will be earmarked for development of the revised Plan.
We are excited and passionate about this chance to do something that will have long-range good effects. We hope you are too!
Wild Connections' mission is to identify, protect, and restore wildlands, native species, and biological diversity in the Arkansas and South Platte watersheds.