Published in the Denver Post
By Tim Sullivan
The resiliency of people has been tested in ways we could not have imagined 12 months ago. This past year, nature’s resilience was also tested. In Colorado, we witnessed the worst wildfire season in our history. Throughout the West, Midwest and South, droughts devastated agriculture and threatened food and water supplies. On the East Coast, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc that will require years of rebuilding.
These weather events are likely a sign of things to come. Droughts are longer and drier, heat spells are hotter, and rain events are wetter. The result has been increased threats to lives, property and businesses.
One lesson from the past year is that conservation of natural systems is often our best, and most cost-effective, approach to minimizing the devastation of these disasters. Conservation organizations and governments are applying proven conservation methods to make our lands and water supplies more resilient.
From Fort Collins to Durango, wildfires burned nearly 400 square miles claiming lives and destroying property. Warmer temperatures and prolonged drought combined with dense, overgrown forests threaten the places we live and love along with our water supplies, economic enterprises and infrastructure. Across the country, the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $1.4 billion on fire suppression in 2012.
Unless we want to continue to spend more and more money to fight fires and see more devastation in their wake, we must redouble our efforts to restore forests to healthier conditions before catastrophic fires ignite. The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, along with many partners, has been part of a successful restoration effort that has treated more than 50,000 acres over the last 3 years. The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration initiative brings conservation groups, government officials and industry to the table to reduce the risk of unnaturally large and damaging wildfires to people, wildlife and water supplies. By getting our forest’s in better shape, fire, erosion and mudslides are less of a risk to people when extreme weather hits.
Healthy forests and grasslands offer us protection against drought, too. Across much of the country, drought is killing crops and drying up rivers. Higher temperatures and longer rainless periods will reduce water availability for people, agriculture, manufacturing and wildlife. Natural landscapes catch, purify and hold water. When they’re protected, they can effectively store and release water when it’s not raining. Across Colorado, The Nature Conservancy and other land trusts and government agencies protected more than 200,000 acres in 2012; helping preserve the resilience of natural systems and partnering with landowners to strengthen and sustain agricultural operations.
On the East Coast, Hurricane Sandy reset the record books with staggering floods and devastation. The “superstorm” was a wake-up call to millions living in vulnerable areas. Again, conservation groups are working with local communities to use natural systems—like oyster reefs, mangroves and marshes—to reduce the impacts of flooding, sea level rise and storm surges on people and property.
When it comes to weather-related disasters, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure. Over $200 billion has been spent on disaster response in the Gulf of Mexico since Hurricane Katrina. Compare that to building up natural defenses against storm surges and cost savings are impressive. For example, oyster reef restoration costs roughly $1.5 million per mile in the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that for every dollar we spend on infrastructure defense, we save as much as $4 in avoided costs of emergency response.
These same lessons should apply here in Colorado. Fortunately, our natural systems are in relatively good condition compared to other parts of the country. The Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Natural Heritage Program recently developed a new conservation report card, known as “The State of Colorado’s Biodiversity” report, which delivers both good and bad news. It ranks our natural heritage as “in relatively good condition” or “restorable.” However, only one-third of our rivers and streams are in good condition and our prairies are the most highly altered and least protected landscape. This measurement tool will guide our decisions as we protect and restore nature while preparing for the effects of climate change.
Weather may still be unpredictable but our response to the looming challenges of a changing climate should be thoughtful and proactive. These threats provide opportunities to develop strategies that will protect people, property, food and water supplies, and businesses.
Last year tested the resiliency of both people and nature. 2013 will undoubtedly present many of the same challenges. The good news is it will also present many opportunities to invest in natural defenses to protect the things we care about the most.
Tim Sullivan is The Nature Conservancy of Colorado’s state director.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.