Front Range Forest
Front Range Forest Restoration Front Range Forest Restoration © The Nature Conservancy/Ken Geiger

Newsroom

Forest Restoration Project Shows Great Results for Protecting Watershed

Initiative supported by MillerCoors, PepsiCo and Wells Fargo Foundation

Denver, CO

Forests, Fires and Water in the Denver Metro Area The Upper South Platte watershed is the principle water source for the Denver metro area. Restoring forests to reduce wildfire risk leads to a healthier, cleaner water supply.

The Nature Conservancy in Colorado recently released the results of a three-year long project to reduce wildfire risk and protect Denver’s water supply. The initiative was born out of a unique partnership between TNC, MillerCoors, PepsiCo and the Wells Fargo Foundation to promote water security and water quality by restoring the forests of the Upper South Platte watershed.

The organizations came together in 2014 with a goal of reducing the risk of large-scale, high-severity wildfires and the associated potential for devastating post-fire impacts to our water supplies and communities.

The project results show great strides towards this goal, significantly reducing predicted wildfire burn area, decreasing forest density and increasing forest resilience to wildfire.

“We are extremely proud to be part of this innovative partnership,” said Gloria Schoch, community affairs senior manager for MillerCoors. “Not only was this project about bettering our environment, but it also took place in one of our brewery hometowns, which makes it that much more special.”

“Consistent with our ‘Performance with Purpose’ agenda to protect the planet, we are pleased and proud to be supporting this very meaningful project,” said PepsiCo Recycling and NABQ Sustainability Director Kathleen Niesen.  “Amplifying our relationship with TNC and likeminded peer companies, we are addressing a number of important environmental issues – including watershed enhancement and fire control – while providing improved, safer access to recreational areas across Colorado.  In this case we can absolutely see the forest for the trees.”

With an initial combined investment of $1 million from MillerCoors, PepsiCo and the Wells Fargo Foundation, TNC joined with Denver Water to launch the Upper South Platte Partnership—a new  coalition of government agencies, water providers, nonprofit organizations, fire protection districts, and academic institutions unified in their focus on the health of the watershed and its forests. 

The USPP began by identifying high-priority forest treatment sites within the watershed – areas at significant risk to wildfire and susceptible to post-fire erosion.  They then implemented forest-management activities at each of these sites to reduce hazardous fuels that can result in large-scale, catastrophic wildfires. Treatments were also designed to create more open forest conditions similar to the type of forest that existed within this watershed before the modern era of fire suppression.

“Supporting resilient communities and addressing the impacts of climate change are key priorities of Wells Fargo’s environmental philanthropy,” said Ramsay Huntley, vice president, Clean Tech and Innovation Philanthropy at Wells Fargo. “We are very pleased with the results of this important project, which has increased resiliency in the watershed and is helping protect critical natural resources for Colorado communities.”

TNC conducted pre- and post-restoration monitoring of the sites to analyze progress towards their goals. 

The results show that the treatments significantly reduced the proportion of the treatment area predicted to burn with active crown fire from 65% to 29% after the treatment. Active crown fire refers to fire that spreads through the tree branches as opposed to moving along the ground surface. Active crown fire is often associated with higher-intensity fire that can lead to increased post-fire impacts such as soil erosion, which can great affect water supply.

The forest density was greatly reduced from an average 359 trees per acre to 88 trees per acre, opening up the forest and increasing the distance between trees. This will substantially reduce the likelihood of an active crown fire with high-severity fire effects. Additionally, this will allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor, which will stimulate the growth of grasses and shrubs important for wildlife.

The treatments also increased the proportion of ponderosa pine 45% to 65% which help increase the resilience of the forest to wildfire, drought and insect attacks. This means the forest will be better able to withstand—and recover from—impacts from disturbances such as wildfire. Aspen trees, which add diversity to the forest system and are extremely important for wildlife, increased from 3% to 6%. 

 “We are extremely pleased and excited about the results of this project,” said Paige Lewis, deputy state director of The Nature Conservancy in Colorado.  “It demonstrates that forest restoration works as a cost-effective method to protect our water supply, as opposed to paying much more for post-fire clean up and rehabilitation. Having organizations such as MillerCoors, PepsiCo and the Wells Fargo Foundation invest in this work demonstrates their commitment to protecting a resource that is important to communities and nature as well as their bottom line.” 

While the original three-year project has come to an end, TNC and the Upper South Platte Partnership plan to accelerate work within the watershed.  MillerCoors has pledged to continue their support of these efforts with an additional grant of $50,000 to The Nature Conservancy.

“A primary goal from the outset was to learn best practices when it comes to ensuring water security and water quality by restoring the forests of the Upper South Platte watershed that is of critical importance for a healthy Colorado,” added Schoch. “And we did this just that. We now hope to expand these learnings so our community can continue to benefit from this work.”

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.