In an effort to improve forest resilience and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the Interior West, three organizations are receiving a total of $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 (SWERI) which includes the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute (CFRI), Highlands University’s New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute, and Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute. The SWERI were created through congressional legislation passed in 2004 which 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 Colorado Forest Restoration Institute is housed in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship in CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources.
The three institutes will work collaboratively on three key components with the funding, to:
- 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 CFRI 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 CFRI 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 CFRI 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, said Brett Wolk, one of CFRI’s assistant directors. 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 SWERI works 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 CFRI 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, there is an opportunity for other states to benefit from the collective knowledge across the institutes.
“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 the application of science, while making incremental change to expand equity of ideas and resources among wider audiences, those will be our measures of success.”
From Colorado State University
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Gerald.