A baby tree next to a shovel in the dirt
Double Burn Scar in Colorado Replanting a double-burn scar forest—first burned by the High Park fire in 2012 and again by the Cameron Peak fire in 2020. © PrylinskiProductions
Stories in Colorado

What Colorado Trailblazers Teach Us About Wildfire Recovery

Meet our two Phil James Conservation Award winners and discover how they’re restoring Colorado’s ponderosa pine forests.

From deepening drought to record-breaking wildfires, we are watching the impacts of climate change unfold in real-time. In Colorado, wildfires are burning more frequently, bigger, longer and hotter. While fire is a natural part of many forested ecosystems, the scale and intensity of today's wildfires are unprecedented.

A group of people are kneeling down on grass with shovels, construction vests, and hard hats.
Collaboration With strong partnerships, forest management and restoration have a much greater impact. © PrylinskiProductions

The Nature Conservancy is working with partners to manage forests to withstand and be resilient to fire. We also work in burned areas where forests are unable to recover on their own, planting native seedlings and seeds to grow in low-density forests in the future.

Every year, we recognize partners who have shown an exceptional commitment to stewardship and a passion to conserve and heal the planet with our Phil James Conservation Award. Named for a former TNC board member, this award recognizes extraordinary contributions or achievements of an individual or partner organization that furthers the mission of TNC in Colorado. In 2021, the two Phil James Conservation Award recipients made significant contributions to restoring Colorado’s scorched ponderosa pine forests.

One Tree at a Time—2021 Successes

  • Trees with a flame.

    305

    Acres of burn scars restored

  • pine trees

    17,340

    Ponderosa pine trees planted

  • a plant emerging

    48,240

    Specially coated ponderosa pine seeds spread

Leveraging Local Knowledge to Heal Monument Gulch

In 2011, the High Park fire outside Fort Collins burned through Monument Gulch, where for the past 30 years, Amy Zach Williams and her partner have lived and raised grass-fed beef. Just nine years later, the Cameron Peak fire burned portions of the same area again.

“All of our leased lands were consumed by the Cameron Peak Fire,” says Amy. “It was devastating to witness the aftermath of these once-beautiful, beloved places that we know and care for intimately.”

The reburn scorched recovering trees and eliminated future seed sources. Without people making efforts to plant trees, severely burned forests like these may never recover and will instead transition to grass or shrublands.

An aerial shot of a burned forest.
Monument Gulch This forest first burned in the 2011 High Park fire and again in the 2020 Cameron Peak fire. © PrylinskiProductions

TNC joined forces with the Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed (CPRW) to connect with local community members and restore Monument Gulch. Planting trees fit well with CPRW's post-fire recovery work to reduce sediment runoff by stabilizing slopes and distributing mulch on steep slopes. Daniel Bowker, a forester with CPRW, connected TNC with Amy Zach Williams.

“That TNC and its staff had the vision to start this seedling project years earlier was poignant, and it fueled in me a strong sense of gratitude when this tree planting was proposed,” says Amy Zach Williams.

TNC scientists, led by Teresa Chapman and Catherine Schloegel, altered techniques of traditional planting to adapt to our changing climate. They used predictions of current and future climate change to identify the most suitable places for replanting ponderosa pines. Monument Gulch has highly favorable conditions for current and future forests, making it a priority for tree planting. In addition, they selected a fall planting window to reduce drought stress on newly planted seedlings. They also planted trees in clumps of 5-10 acres, with spaces of equal size in between, to build fire resilience into the structure of future forests.

In September 2021, volunteers from Wildlands Restoration Volunteers, Trees, Water & People and CPRW arrived to plant more than 6,000 ponderosa pine seedlings. Amy Zach Williams put weeks of effort into clearing hazard trees with a chainsaw and organizing the neighbors to allow passage through an HOA, and she showed up to plant trees along with the other volunteers.

Despite the unforgiving terrain, the volunteers planted all but 900 of the trees. That’s when Amy stepped forward and offered to finish the planting.

A person plants a tree in a burned-out forest.
Nature's Healer Over the course of six weeks, Amy worked to plant 900 trees at Monument Gulch. © Catherine Schloegel/TNC

“Planting 900 trees by oneself would take weeks,” says Catherine Schloegel, TNC’s watershed forests manager. “But that’s just what Amy did. Each week I’d receive an email detailing the progress: ‘I spent 4 days above Fish Creek and got in another 200 trees. I think you’ll really like the spot.’ And on it went, for more than a month.”

Amy worked for six weeks to plant 900 trees. For her tenacity and willingness to go above and beyond to heal the land, Amy Zach Williams was one of the two winners of the 2021 Phil James Award.

As Amy related, “When the plantings fell short of the intended goal, I could not squander the opportunity to plant the seedlings that remained. I saw it as a way to give back to the land and seed hope for future generations. I found it both gratifying and therapeutic to see the land move toward healing and wholeness once again. And to know that I had some small part in planting a future forest was just an extra bonus.”

A Holistic Approach to Recovery

Another wildfire permanently changed the landscape in 2020 when the Calwood Fire tore through Boulder County, burning 10,000 acres in the span of a few hours. The Cal-Wood Education Center, where generations of children and families have formed connections to the forest, wildlife and scenery, was in the path of the fire.

The fire burned more than half of Cal-Wood's 1,200-acre property, burning severely across large portions.

A forest burned by a wildfire with many scorched, standing trees.
2020 Calwood Fire In just a few hours, this fire burned more than half of Cal-Wood's 1,200-acre property, severely across large portions. © Catherine Schloegel/TNC

Yet, Cal-Wood’s staff quickly started planning for post-fire recovery, including soil erosion control, rebuilding trails and bridges, removing hazardous trees, reseeding grasses and planting trees. Beyond the immediate efforts to stabilize slopes, they welcomed partners to the property to advance our knowledge of what works in post-fire environments given our changing climate—an urgent field of study in Colorado.

“After the fire, we had a lot of questions about what to do to restore our land, and we were open to exploring any possible project that would help,” says Cal-Wood Executive Director Rafael Salgado. “Having a lot of interest from conservation organizations, universities and government agencies to set up research projects on our land helped us decide to explore the possibility of turning Cal-Wood into a wildfire research center. At this point we have 14 research projects on our property.”

For example, they partnered with TNC to sow native ponderosa pine seeds in areas with no surviving trees. In July 2021, Cal-Wood staff added ponderosa pine seeds to the mulch that was spread by helicopters across steep slopes. By November, TNC staff found 2-inch-high trees growing that had germinated from the seeding. This work is part of TNC’s work to generate knowledge and develop new tools to help forests recover from wildfire.

Two people with hard hats work in a burn scar forest.
A baby tree sprouts out of the ground surrounded by plants.
A person with a hard hat plants seeds in a forest.
Two people with hard hats stand in a burnt forest.

“We’ve found that climate adaptation takes a land manager who is willing to go to unknown places with you,” says Catherine Schloegel. “Cal-Wood Education Center is an early adopter, agreeing to add seeds into aerial mulching operations in spite of uncertain outcomes.”

Cal-Wood’s leadership, including Rafael Salgado and his staff and trustees, have taken a holistic approach to recovery, thoughtfully forming boards to advise the team on how to balance science and knowledge generation with post-wildfire recovery. This dedication to recovery, community and innovation sets them apart and is why they also received our Phil James Conservation Award.

We have learned that these partnerships are very valuable and have guided us with our fire restoration projects; and thanks to these, our land is recovering.

Cal-Wood Executive Director
A baby tree is growing in a burned forest.
Hope Springs Up Partnerships and innovation are helping Cal-Wood Education Center plant the forests of the future: low-density and clustered. © Audrey Wheeler/TNC
A burned forest with plants growing on the ground.
High-severity burns Without surviving cone-bearing trees, it will take centuries for this ponderosa pine landscape to recover. © Audrey Wheeler/TNC
Hope Springs Up Partnerships and innovation are helping Cal-Wood Education Center plant the forests of the future: low-density and clustered. © Audrey Wheeler/TNC
High-severity burns Without surviving cone-bearing trees, it will take centuries for this ponderosa pine landscape to recover. © Audrey Wheeler/TNC

Now, TNC and Cal-Wood are finding more ways to partner, including on their educational and volunteer programs. Cal-Wood has created programs to serve Boulder County’s Latino community, helping broaden the tent and share the wonders of nature with those who may not otherwise get out to explore Colorado’s mountains. 

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