As winter’s grip on the mountains loosens and the snow on the ground finally melts, the region’s volunteer protectors of national forest lands move into action.
The Summit County Forest Health Task Force started as a nonprofit about a decade ago to help the U.S. Forest Service offset the destruction of the seasonal pine beetle. It has since spread to larger aims. Today, the organization works in establishing cooperative efforts among area stakeholders to educate about forest health and restoration, as well as assist the Forest Service, which has increasingly seen its budget stripped away each year.
Five years into the founding of this association, the task force formed its forest monitoring project, aiding in observing and reporting evolving conditions to the official managers of the landscape so many enjoy. Informing the proper parties of noxious weeds and invasive species remains a primary target.
“(We want) to be part of the process to determine what the forest will look like,” said Howard Hallman, the task force’s president. “Our dream is that the work that our ‘citizen scientists’ are doing will augment or supplement work that maybe the Forest Service doesn’t have the resources to do.”
This year, the number of permanent monitoring plots within the White River National Forest in Summit County will increase to more than 200 after work was done on 164 in 2015. In tune with U.S. Forest Service protocols, volunteers will produce data on both logged and unmanaged lands by compiling various figures from light digging to discover potential fire remnants, as well as taking tree core and ring measures.
“We want to learn more about our forest to put things into context,” said Hallman. “What we hope to be able to do is also to provide very meaningful information to U.S. Forest Service. If we’re producing a lot of data — and we’ve learned this along the way — and it’s not meaningful to the Forest Service, then we’ve not helped anybody out.”
As is reported on often, annual budgets continue to be trimmed among local, state and federal management agencies. All while the demands on each only widen, making the role these local volunteer groups play all the more important.
“It’s a challenge,” explained Marcus Selig, director of the Southern Rockies region of the National Forest Foundation (NFF). “Things are tough, and it’s getting harder and harder to get work done on the ground.”
Similar to these official organizations, the task force — with its lone assistance coming from the U.S. Forest Service, the Center of Collaborative Conservation at Colorado State University, as well as a few other stakeholders — faces similar limitations, so pursues partnerships to bolster its community-based efforts. Establishing these relationships helps avoid duplicative or occasionally competing endeavors, and the task force has been working closely with the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District (FDRD), which provides support for the nearby ranger station for the White River National Forest.
To emphasize the importance of cooperative work, the NFF, a Congressionally-chartered nonprofit partner of the U.S. Forest Service founded in 1991, held a collaborative restoration workshop in Denver in April. The event’s registration was quickly at capacity so volunteer groups like the Forest Health Task Force and FDRD could obtain advice on how to best team up.
“There’s a lot that folks are working on and in the same spots where they can develop these networks and work better together,” said Selig. “We’ve come a long way in the last five years on how citizens work with the agency and how we work altogether on planning efforts.”
From there, once dual goals between various entities are determined and a strategy is put into place, the next step is actual collaborative implementation. It’s a challenge many organizations encounter as they attempt to fulfill their mutual ambitions, while also ensuring successful completion of individual motivations and initial purposes.
For its forest monitoring project, the task force, for instance, is confident the expanding program would not be where it is today without the association with FDRD. And both are all the better for it, now with seamless communication, shared resources, and common access to the information gathered from their work.
“I think that’s a good example of local partnerships,” said Hallman, “because by ourselves we couldn’t have done it. What we’re attempting to do … is work with everybody to understand what others are doing, to help inform each other and really come up with a single collective mission. Having said that, it’s easier to say that than it is to actually make that happen. But that’s one of the intents.”
Operating together in Summit County, the two hope to develop a participatory, community vision for forest management in support of the larger U.S. Forest Service objectives. Through volunteer hours on the local trail system and other recreational sites on the forest, as well as with helping to clean up slash-burn areas and the overarching forest monitoring work, they believe they’ll get there.
“Our entire economy here, pretty much, is dependent on our forest in one way or the other,” said Hallman. “Whether it’s recreation, whether it’s water, you name it, whether it’s real estate — people come here to build things and buy things because of the view. And if it all burns down, maybe not so likely. So the more information that we can gather about historical forest conditions, that really does inform us going forward.”