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Testing the Resiliency of People and Nature

Colorado's State Director shares his thoughts on resilience in the face of floods, fire and other challenges.

This Op-ed appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera.

The resiliency of Coloradans has been tested in ways we could not have imagined a year ago. This past year, we battled record-breaking wildfires, suffered devastation due to historic flooding and endured statewide drought that affected our ranching and farming communities. My heart goes out to the many Coloradans who are struggling to rebuild, reassess and recover after those overwhelming natural events. 

Though we can’t control whether natural disasters occur, we can invest in nature to build Colorado’s resiliency, reducing the amount of harmful impacts and costs.

Last summer, more than 194,000 acres burned and hundreds of homes were destroyed in Colorado wildfires. By using innovative science, collaborating with diverse partners and fighting fire with fire we can improve the conditions of our most vulnerable forests and lessen the negative impacts of fire.

In May, The Nature Conservancy’s seven-member fire crew battled rugged terrain as they removed or thinned trees and other hazardous fuels that created a high fire risk on the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest near Boulder. Across the Front Range, agencies and organizations have improved conditions on 21,171 acres through a collaborative effort that also created nearly 400 local jobs. This has far reaching benefits considering the Front Range forests are home to two million people, and those forests filter and supply drinking water to nearly two-thirds of the people living in our state.

Catastrophic floods paralyzed our state in September. Boulder County was the worst hit, with 17 inches falling in a single day, a year’s total in most years. Because heavy rains are certain to return someday, we need to manage healthy forests, grasslands, wetlands and undeveloped floodplains. These 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 protected more than 60,000 acres of land in 2013, helping preserve the resilience of natural systems while partnering with landowners to strengthen and sustain their lands through floods and drought

Last year, the Boulder Daily Camera featured a local scientist who is spearheading an agricultural partnership pilot at The Fox Ranch. Partners designed a detailed land management plan that includes where and when animals can graze and for how long. After two years, the new methods are showing success for ranchers, grasslands are improved and important birds and wildlife are flourishing. This partnership demonstrates how a working cattle ranch can improve habitat for nature, and create sustainability for whole communities.

While the recent floods may have been a once in a lifetime event for many of us, Colorado’s recent droughts are among the deepest and longest in centuries. Combine these droughts with a growing population and a changing climate, and conversations about a severe water shortage shift from “if” to “when.” 

The Nature Conservancy is playing an integral role in developing Colorado’s first statewide water plan which will lay the foundation for thriving communities and a healthy environment. Decision-makers are using the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Non-consumptive Toolbox, a resource the Conservancy developed for planning for healthy rivers. The plan will affect our economy and environment for decades to come. 

Improved water use efficiency and restoration are critical for our future and the Colorado River from which Boulderites get 20-percent of their water. The Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Study revealed there isn’t enough water to meet all of the projected demands. The Colorado runs through seven states – connecting everyone in the southwest through drinking water and food production to recreation and energy. Right now our science is guiding site-specific restoration projects to improve the health of the entire Colorado River Basin. 

Adjusting to climate change is a key component of nature’s resilience. With partners, we’re helping wet meadows and wildlife cope with warmer, drier weather in the Gunnison Basin enabling plants and wildlife to thrive in spite of nature’s curve balls while improving conditions for ranching. 

Last year tested the resiliency of people and nature. While 2014 will undoubtedly present many challenges it will also create many opportunities. By investing in our natural world we can protect the state we love to call “home.” 

Tim Sullivan
State Director
The Nature Conservancy in Colorado

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