Smoke billows from the Cameron Peak Fire. Photo by Karina Puikkonen.
In an effort to improve forest resilience and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the Interior West, three organizations, including Colorado State University’s Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, are receiving $20 million from the U.S. government.
The funds are part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress with bipartisan support and signed by President Joe Biden in 2021, which will go to enhancing key systems and processes to mitigate the impact of forest fires.
The award will be made to the Southwest Ecological Restoration Institutes, which includes the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute as well as Highlands University’s New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute and Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute. The Southwest Ecological Restoration Institutes were created through congressional legislation passed in 2004 and charged the three institutes with promoting adaptive management practices to restore the health of fire-adapted forest and woodland ecosystems of the Interior West.
The three institutes will work collaboratively on three key components with the funding. They will develop a national database of existing data on fuel treatments and wildfires, work with managers, planners, and policymakers to facilitate use and applications of the data, and research outcomes of forest management and wildfires to learn what works.
“The work we’re charged with developing under the Infrastructure measure will create opportunities for land and fire managers, scientists and community stakeholders to co-produce actionable knowledge to lessen the harmful effects of wildfire events to people and the environment,” said Tony Cheng, director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute and professor in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship.
According to Cheng, the new funding aligns with the CSU land-grant mission and offers an opportunity to grow CFRI’s existing data management, application and research efforts to be accessible for a wider audience.
The funding is prompted by climate change-driven increases in fire activity and fire season length, continued development in the wildland-urban interface and interactions between fire and disturbances like pest and pathogen disturbance.
“The work we’re charged with developing under the Infrastructure measure will create opportunities for land and fire managers, scientists and community stakeholders to co-produce actionable knowledge to lessen the harmful effects of wildfire events to people and the environment.”
— Professor Tony Cheng
Considering recent wildfires like the Cameron Peak and Marshall fires in Colorado, Cheng said that the stakes are at an all-time high to create actionable plans for mitigation.
“We’re up against a natural force for which our systems of land management, fire management and land-use development are ill-suited,” Cheng said. “The systems we do have are really being tested. We can’t drive wildfire risk to zero, but there are ways we can live with these risks and mitigate those impacts.
“When land and fire managers, scientists and stakeholders work together to craft and apply science-based solutions, we can better realize this goal.”
The new projects will leverage CSU’s strengths and build on each institutes’ existing efforts, said Brett Wolk, one of Colorado Forest Restoration Institute’s assistant directors.
For example, the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute recently completed a statewide database of forest vegetation management and wildfires for Colorado, complementing a similar effort for New Mexico and southern Colorado led by the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute. The data serve as a foundation for the decision support tools and collaborative processes that Colorado Forest Restoration Institute deploys around the state and throughout the Interior West. The national database will be developed using similar types of data across the country.
The data are only the starting point, Wolk said. Making data meaningful for land and fire managers, scientists, policymakers and community stakeholders working in their specific places is a critical function the institutes excel at and is called out in the Infrastructure provisions.
“Unless the data is situated within a social context where people can understand how it applies to their work, all the best data and science in the world won’t change decisions or outcomes on the ground,” said Wolk. “That’s why the SWERI’s work to co-develop solutions with partners and empower decisions that are science informed but also locally relevant.”
A third component of the funding is researching outcomes of past treatments to improve future decisions. This will build on deep research expertise at the Arizona and Colorado institutes, exemplified by a recent Colorado Forest Restoration Institute co-led publication and accompanying podcast evaluating accomplishments of the Forest to Faucets partnership aimed at protecting Denver’s water supply from devastating wildfires.
The challenge, Wolk said, is applying the collective institutes’ knowledge and expertise across the entire U.S. At the same time, the opportunity for other states is to benefit from the collective knowledge across the institutes.
“Unless the data is situated within a social context where people can understand how it applies to their work, all the best data and science in the world won’t change decisions or outcomes on the ground. That’s why the SWERI’s work to co-develop solutions with partners and empower decisions that are science informed but also locally relevant.”
—Brett Wolk, assistant director, Colorado Forest Restoration Institute
“The Infrastructure funding designation by Congress reflects our increased impact, recognizes the collaboration among our institutions, and is a humbling testament that we provide services and products people value and find useful,” Wolk said.
He added: “It’s a massive opportunity to help fast-track implementation of what’s working in forest and fire management, but research also shows big gaps in who has access to and contributes knowledge towards these forestry data and decision-making processes. If we can increase science application, while making incremental change to expand equity of ideas and resources among wider audiences, those will be our measures of success.”