Upper Monument Creek has experienced increasingly severe and costly impacts from wildfire
By Rob Carrigan, firstname.lastname@example.org
What many organizations and government agencies call the the Upper Monument Creek (UMC) landscape has been identified as a potential problem area for some time by several groups. Historically in fact, it has experienced increasingly severe and costly impacts from wildfire, including the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire that burned across the southern edge.
The Front Range Roundtable (a collaborative group that has been working on such initiatives since 2004) identified this area as a high priority treatment area to reduce the risk of large severe fires and to increase the function of the watersheds.
The UMC landscape is located on the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) Pike National Forest and participants in the UMC Landscape Restoration Initiative (the Initiative) worked together for more than a year to develop collaborative, science-based management recommendations aimed at restoring forest resilience and reducing wildfire risks to communities in the area.
Among those agencies and groups working on the initiative are: Coalition for the Upper South Platte, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado Springs Utilities, Colorado State Forest Service, Colorado State University, Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research, The Nature Conservancy, The Wilderness Society, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, West Range Reclamation LLC.
The Initiative submitted their report and recommendations to the USFS in early 2014. The Report provides background on the natural and human history of the UMC landscape, describes current forest conditions and challenges, and details the spatial and non-spatial analyses conducted by the group through their collaborative process.
Based on these analyses, the UMC Collaborative recommended that the USFS use a combination of mechanical, manual and prescribed fire treatments to manage conditions on approximately 18,000 acres within the 67,000 acre UMC landscape over the next 7-10 years. The estimated ten-year budget needed to implement these recommendations totals slightly over $10 million, or about $1 million average cost per year.
According to reports developed by the Roundtable and the organizations involved, the area's history is partially responsible for some of its challenges.
"The Upper Monument Creek (UMC) landscape was used seasonally by several indigenous groups, human settlement in the area did not begin in earnest until approximately 1860. Early settlers established and expanded timber operations in conjunction with mining activity. By 1867, several large-scale saw mills were operating in the area in response to the rapid pace of development. General William Jackson Palmer, anticipating railroad-driven economic growth, initiated development of the Colorado Springs area in 1871. A full-scale timber boom ensued as harvesters raced to meet the needs of the rapidly growing community and associated mining and railroad industries," according to the Roundtable's report, and they referred to other previous report examining the area.
"By the 1890s, much of the UMC landscape and surrounding area had been extensively logged and badly burned by both human and naturally ignited wildfires. A 1900 report by U.S. Geological Survey employee John G. Jack noted that at least 75% of the forests around Pike’s Peak had been logged, burned or both. While regular cycles of natural fire had occurred in lower-elevation forests for centuries, the increase in human activity led to larger, more severe and more frequent fires in all forest types," according info put together in early 2014.
"In his report, Jack described these forests as among the most damaged of any he had seen in the nation. A map accompanying the Jack report shows much of the UMC landscape occurring in areas designated as “badly burned” or “much burned over.”
Accordingly, concern about the condition of the forests and the potential negative impacts on water supply led President Benjamin Harrison to designate the Pikes Peak and Plum Creek Timberland Reserves in 1892. These reserves were consolidated, along with the South Platte Reserve, in 1907 to form the Pike National Forest, one of the first two National Forests in Colorado.
The federal government launched an aggressive reforestation initiative throughout the Pike National Forest shortly after its establishment. As a result, more than 2 million trees were planted in the area between 1912 and the early 1920s. The most significant planting in the UMC landscape occurred from 1924-1932 when the U.S. Forest Service’s now-defunct Monument Nursery oversaw the planting of seedlings across more than 7,000 acres. Current conditions in the UMC landscape reveal the lasting impact of these ambitious planters."
Though well-meaning, but probably misguided, federal policy of the last century mandating aggressive prevention and suppression of fire. This policy (it is now thought) led to the further disruption of natural fire cycles and promoted the growth of dense, even-aged forests that became stressed by competition for resources and vulnerable to unnaturally large-scale wildfires and insect and disease outbreaks.
No significant fires occurred in this particular area between 1916 and 1989, when the Berry Fire (aka Mount Herman Fire) burned 850 acres in proximity to the USFS’s Monument Fire Center.
In 2002, the Hayman Fire burned approximately 137,000 acres in an adjacent area Northwest of UMC, spreading 19 miles and growing by 62,000 acres in one day. In 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire burned 18,247 acres northwest of Colorado Springs, destroying 346 homes and forcing 32,000 residents to evacuate.
"After a brief increase in logging during the 1950s, very little systematic timber harvest has occurred in the area surrounding the UMC landscape apart from smaller scale thinning and fuels reduction projects. Current forest management projects are complicated by the difficulty of operating in a largely urbanized environment, the relatively low value of products to be removed and the high cost of transportation due to a lack of local wood processing facilities," according to the UMC Collaborative Report.
"Rapid population growth and development in Colorado Springs, Woodland Park and surrounding communities has been a significant driver of conditions in the UMC landscape and, in fact, the entire Pike National Forest. The UMC landscape includes portions of El Paso and Douglas counties, two of Colorado’s fasting growing municipalities. The economic base of the area has shifted from one driven by resource extraction to one dominated by high tech businesses, higher education and the federal government. As a result, the UMC landscape is now highly valued for aesthetics and as a recreational outlet for urban dwellers," the report says.
"Hikers, cyclists, equestrians, hunters and anglers, wildlife enthusiasts and off-road vehicles all frequent these forests, placing increasing pressure and stress on the natural systems. Of particular concern are illegal shooting ranges, refuse dumping, and illegal creation of roads and trails. The USFS monitors these uses and periodically restricts access to the most heavily impacted areas to allow for revegetation and repair. Human use is particularly high on and around the Rampart Range Road and Mt. Herman Road. Unfortunately, due to staffing and resource constraints, resource degradation from illegal recreation use is not adequately addressed in some areas," the group working in collaboration noted.
"Of related concern is the expansion of homes, business and related infrastructure into previously wildland areas, a zone also known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI).
The presence of people and homes in the forest contributes to fragmentation of the landscape, dramatically increases the values at risk from wildfire, and adds to the difficulty and cost of wildfire risk reduction and other management efforts."
The project currently involves work related to Environmental Impact Statement which is expected to be release to the public later this year. Carin Vadala, NEPA Planner for the Forest Service is the lead for the Upper Monument Creek Initiative, and sees nearly a decade of before project completion. "Once the EIS is finalized it is anticipated that projects will continue for about 10 years,” Vadala said.
"The UMC Landscape Restoration Initiative is an ambitious and hopeful endeavor. It reflects the Collaborative’s belief that it is possible to change the trajectory of our high-risk forest landscapes – resulting in a brighter future for both people and nature. The development of these recommendations is a first step in that direction," according to the conclusion of the UMC Collaborative report.