If you only heard one thing about forests over the last few years, it’s likely this: We should be planting millions of trees to slow climate change. With this in mind, you might be wondering why the A/U Ranches is planning to cut down more than half of its trees, on over half of its forested land.
The answer is simple – our forests are overgrown. In places where forests have been removed entirely to make way for new development, such as agricultural fields or a new neighborhood, it’s critical to reforest the land by planting new trees. However, in other places, human development has actually caused forests to grow much denser.
Before the Arkansas Valley was settled by Europeans, dense forests were found only at high elevation, and the valleys were covered by lush grasslands with few, isolated trees – mostly ponderosa pines. These grasslands burned frequently, and most tree seedlings were killed in the fires, thus maintaining a park-like ecosystem that provided habitat for elk, deer and pronghorn. Once the first settlers arrived, they brought livestock that ate away at the lush grasslands. As the grasses disappeared, so did the fuel for frequent fires. More trees survived into adulthood, creating the lush, dense forests we know today.
With these denser forests came new ecological challenges, such as pests and large, destructive crown fires. In the face of these challenges, it becomes increasingly more urgent to appropriately manage our forest. In our case, that means removing more than half of our trees.
To accomplish this task, Ranch foreman Steve Murray enlisted the help of Gretchen Reuning, an A/U Ranches alumna and forester with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in Fort Collins, Colorado. Gretchen pointed Steve toward helpful resources, such as the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Colorado State Forest Service’s Fuel Reduction and Wildfire Risk Mitigation (FRWRM) grant program that provide financial resources to implement forest management.
As Steve explored these resources, he began to develop meaningful relationships with foresters and land managers from the Colorado State Forest Service and the NRCS. “One of the best ways to manage our forests is to develop partnerships and utilize the knowledge of experts,” Steve says. “If you don’t know, call somebody who does.”
The relationships Steve started to form led to a first draft of a forest management plan at the A/U Ranches and the designation of high-priority treatment units that offer the right mix of protecting the property from fire and improving the forests’ health.
These efforts began to pay off in the summer of 2019, when Adventure Unlimited was awarded EQIP funds to begin removing trees in the A/U Ranches’ South Woods. During the same summer, forestry interns collected data on the overall condition of our forests. Based on this data, Steve and forestry program head Timon Keller refined the A/U Ranches’ forest management plan and teamed up with foresters Adam Moore, JT Shaver and Gretchen Reuning to write a grant proposal to the Colorado State Forest Service’s FRWRM program to fund the implementation of this management plan. In early 2020, Adventure Unlimited was awarded the FRWRM grant, and over the summer, a logger, the A/U Ranches’ forestry crew, and summer staff began work to thin designated areas of our forest.
In the fall of 2020, Steve and Timon started planning for a second FRWRM grant proposal in partnership with the neighboring Game Trail residential community. Over the years, Game Trail has been working to improve their forest management, and a partnership with Adventure Unlimited meant a meaningful addition to their efforts. Kari Allen, Game Trail’s forestry representative, began working with Steve and Timon to develop a joint forest management plan and to submit a second FRWRM funding request.
In early 2021, good news arrived in Steve’s email – the A/U Ranches and Game Trail had been awarded a second FRWRM grant, allowing us to implement our joint forest management plan. This grant brought our total grant money to $354,500, which will enable us to treat more than 200 acres of forests.
Our forest management efforts, coordinated with neighbors and foresters from all over Colorado, will create healthy, resilient forests and reduce the risk of destructive crown fires. When you visit the A/U Ranches in the future, you will also be able to take a journey back through time to see what Colorado’s forests looked like when Native Americans called these lands their home.