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.
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
Acres of burn scars restored
Ponderosa pine trees planted
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.
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.
Forest Restoration in Colorado
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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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