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Western Landowners Alliance, partners provide public land information to ranchers, others

On June 22, the Western Landowners Alliance partnered with the Colorado State Land Board and the Colorado State Forest Service for a stewardship and policy tour in the Colorado State Forest near Walden, Colo.

Participants numbered close to thirty and represented a diverse mixture of private and public entities including private ranches in Colorado and Wyoming, state and federal agencies, Colorado State University Extension and nonprofit organizations.

John Twitchell, CSFS district forester, guided the group through a number of discussion topics at each of the six stops in the state forest. Tour topics ranged from the pine beetle epidemic, economics of timber harvesting, forest treatments and management tools that may be transferable to private lands.

For local ranchers, in particular those with grazing leases on the state forestlands, a good relationship with the CSFS can make a huge difference. Their good management, in turn, adds to the ecological health of the forest.

For example, a lop and scatter approach to thinning is good for lodgepole pine because more cones remain on the ground, leading to increased seedling germination, and the thick matt of vegetation left on the ground retains better moisture while protecting the emerging seedlings. However, that thick layer of slash makes it tough for cattle and horses to walk through a recently thinned area, according to Jim Baller, a rancher.

Positive collaborative relationships across the public/private domains such as these help ensure a resilient community and a healthy landscape. As former rancher Perry Handyside said, "The solution is partnerships."

Another challenge affecting ranchers and forest managers involves private fencelines that run through state- and federally-owned forest. Under the grazing lease agreements, the rancher is responsible for the cost and labor of maintaining the fenceline.

In the last several years following a devastating pine beetle epidemic, however, the cost of maintenance has drastically increased in terms of dollar amounts and the ranchers' time. Beetle-kill trees can make up anywhere from 30 to 80 percent of a stand of trees, and those trees are starting to fall, causing extensive damage to fencelines underneath, at the rate of $12,000-14,000 per mile of fence.

In the state forest, Twitchell and other managers can act relatively quickly those circumstances.

"We're a lot lighter on our feet," Twitchell said, than federally-owned lands where imperfect bureaucratic policies like National Environmental Policy Act can additional delays in on-the-ground implementation of solutions. While this particular concern remains mostly a non-issue in the state forest, it still affects ranchers whose leases include U.S. Forest Service lands.

Perhaps less immediately tangible but just as important, is the relationship between the state forest and the public, especially those among the public who recreate in the forest. Public perception and understanding — and ultimately approval — of forest management can substantially influence on what can be achieved on the ground.

It appears public acceptance for forest thinning has started to increase. More frequent catastrophic wildfires throughout the West, created in part by decades of fire suppression and subsequent overgrowth, brought attention to the complexities of good forest management, among them thinning and controlled burning. What is still missing in the public dialogue, however, is the understanding that forest ecosystems vary widely across the West and require sometimes vastly different management techniques.

For example, ponderosa pine forests of the southwest are more resilient to wildfire, drought and bark beetle following mechanical thinning. Given an appropriate level of density, ponderosa pine will survive a wildfire and thrive because of it. Lodgepole pine, on the other hand "all grow up together and all go together," as Twitchell explained.

In order to avoid catastrophic wildfires, but still maintain healthy lodgepole forests, managers need to essentially clear-cut portions of the forest. This style of management is not popular among the public, and has resulted in limiting what managers can do.

"We were socially restrained on the scope of cuts," Twitchell said.

With continued public education campaigns, public understanding and acceptance is steadily increasing with regards to forest treatments like mechanical thinning and controlled burning. And, as treatments are implemented and as managers are given the opportunity to observe and learn from these treatments over subsequent years of regeneration, management is improving. Twitchell showed treatments from as long ago as 1986 to as recently as last year, allowing tour participants to see the results of 8-10 inches of annual growth in a number of different treatment areas.

As Twitchell explained to the group, good forest management creates a diversity of age classes throughout the forest, thereby providing needed products to society while also ensuring a sustainable income to support ongoing management.

"This is a long-term investment," Twitchell said.

In addition to creating more resilient, less fire-prone forests, well-implemented treatments result in an increase in ground water, which in turn helps ensure a healthier ecosystem.

The tour ended at the new Colorado State Forest Service facility, which was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in January.

The tour was a combined effort between the Colorado State Land Board, Colorado State Forest Service and the Western Landowners Alliance whose core goal was to create an informative opportunity to bring landowners into the conversation about best forest management practices. WLA's executive director, Lesli Allison, ended the tour by encouraging landowners to make their voices heard in the policy arena related to forest, range and riparian management.