HEALTHY FOREST INITIATIVE

Contact the District Manager
Conservation Forester: Gretchen Reuning – gretchen.reuning@co.nacdnet.net – 970-295-5283

What is the Healthy Forest Initiative?
The Healthy Forest Initiative is a joint effort between the Big Thompson Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to bring the knowledge, technical experience, and funding to private landowners for restoration activities on their forest land. This collaborative approach to private land management addresses multiple resource concerns on the Front Range including wildfire hazards, water quality, erosion control, wildlife diversity, and many more. Through the NRCS and The Farm Bill, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) helps subsidize the costs of restorative efforts on private land. Even though many restoration projects already occur on federal land, approximately 75% of forested acreage is privately owned, requiring additional effort and focus on private lands to achieve broad-scale effects.

The philosophy of the Conservation District and NRCS is to restore forests to their historical state prior to human influence. Since the mid-1800s, human influence on forestland has resulted in forests that are very different than those prior to settlement. In general, tree densities have increased and forests have become more uniform in age, species type, and structure (less variety in meadows, streams, etc.). As a result, diversity in our forest habitats has declined over time. Since wildlife species require a variety of habitat types to thrive, forest diversity is critical to the success of wildlife populations. Insects and diseases can kill an entire forest when the trees do not reflect historical conditions. In addition, our highly dense forests lead to intense wildfires that travel far and wide, impacting human lives. By restoring our forests to a state that is more representative of how they were structured over 100 years ago, our forest land will have higher degrees of resilience to wildfire, bugs and diseases, and droughts or floods. When creating a forest improvement plan, we consider all of these ecosystem impacts to ensure we’re providing an all-inclusive and ecology-based management plan.

The Big Thompson Conservation District has a dedicated Conservation Forester that can help you determine if you are a good candidate for the program.

What does a naturally-functioning forest look like?
When you visit a restored or naturally healthy Ponderosa Pine forest, you’ll notice that tree densities are perhaps a lot lower than what you’re used to seeing in the Front Range of Colorado. There will be many tree-less openings up to a few acres in size. These openings will have a healthy grass, forb, and shrub population and will help support wildlife browsing and livestock grazing in the area. The trees will make up an uneven-aged, patchy mosaic of canopy cover, with some trees existing in groups of 2-5, with other individual trees remaining solitary. Healthy Ponderosa Pine forests look this way because historically, fire played a major role in these ecosystems. Historically, low-intensity surface fires were a part of the Big Thompson watershed every 5-25. While rarely burning mature trees, these low-intensity fires move through the under-story burning grasses, shrubs, small trees, and any accumulated fuel such as needles and fallen branches.
Today, much of the Ponderosa Pine forest in the Big Thompson watershed barely resembles its historic structure. As a consequence, wildfires have become much greater in intensity and severity, often burning thousands of acres of whole trees. These crown fires do not restore the forest to its historic function, and instead have devastating effects on the landscape (soil quality, air quality, water quality, wildlife habitat, etc.). The Big Thompson Conservation District’s Healthy Forest Initiative aims to mimic a characteristically historical disturbance such as fire with mechanical treatment. This can help restore the forest to its historically functioning state. After treatment, if a fire were to come through a treated area, those acres would be more likely to lower fire intensities and allow existing trees and structures to survive. Additionally, healthy wildlife habitat and soil, air, and water quality can be maintained.

MacGregor Ranch Forest Restoration Project – BTCD
160 acres of Ponderosa Pine forest have been successfully treated on MacGregor Ranch’s southeastern portion of their 1,200-acre property. Using science-based forest restoration research and prescriptions, this project aims to return the forest to its natural and historical ecological function.
For the past 150 years, societal practices have modified the structure and composition of our forests, leading to undesirable and uncharacteristic fuel conditions, poor wildlife habitat, and unhealthy trees. In turn, these undesirable conditions can lead to degradation of soil health and water quality. This project was designed to restore resiliency of the forest to pests, grazing, disease, fire, and extreme weather events.

MacGregor Ranch Before and After Photos:

MacGregor Ranch Ponderosa Pine forest:

The top photograph represents how untreated forest at MacGregor Ranch looked (pink flagging indicates a tree that will not be removed). Notice the lack of under-story plant community. As the tree canopy opens up, we will see a tremendous increase in grasses, forbs, and shrubs in the under-story within a year of treatment. The photograph below shows a recently treated area. The large openings that were created through mechanical harvesting will favor regeneration of
the understory plant community, which will benefit both wildlife and cattle on the ranch. The presence of the openings will also help mitigate severe wildfire
danger.

Forest Restoration’s benefit to the local economy:
Hiring a local logging company to complete these forest restoration projects has contributed to the local economy. Healthy Forest Initiative projects can be used as an educational demonstration site and will encourage similar future projects throughout Larimer County and Colorado – further benefiting the larger landscape and community.
This photograph shows a log landing at MacGregor Ranch where the logger brings trees to process into saw-logs, wood chips, and other products. Wood products from our forests also represent an economic opportunity as they are sold back into the community. This log landing will be restored and monitored for weeds in the coming years to ensure that the logging equipment does not have a negative effect on the land and soil.

Old Ponderosa Pines are treated as legacies in the Healthy Forest Initiative, These old Ponderosa Pinesdemonstrate evidence of MacGregor Ranch’s fire history. As Ponderosa Pines mature, they develop thick bark that protects them from low-intensity surface fires. The trees in this photograph were exposed to multiple low- intensity fires throughout their lives. When fire is excluded from the landscape for centuries, forest fuel loads build to dangerous levels and wildfires can easily escalate into crown fires. Severe crown fires can consume large trees such as the old Ponderosa Pines you see in this photo when there is enough fuel and the weather conditions allow it.  It’s important to retain old Ponderosa Pines such as these to maintain their genetic legacy that has functioned on this landscape for centuries.

In partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Big Thompson Conservation District, a science and ecology-based forest management plan will be established for every Healthy Forest Initiative Project.

  • Using the management plan as a guide, the resulting forest restoration project will achieve several natural resources goals:
    1. Reduce uncharacteristic fire hazard and increase post-fire resiliency of the landscape.
    2. Improve diversity of wildlife habitat.
    3. Improve forest structure and composition.
    4. Enhance recreation and aesthetic values of the property.

HEALTHY FOREST INITIATIVE
In The Big Thompson Conservation District, OUR PURPOSE: The Conservation Districts of Larimer County are partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to bring private landowners the knowledge, resources, and funding necessary to manage natural resource concerns. This partnership helps deliver a land-management philosophy that addresses multiple aspects of our forest such as wildfire hazard reduction, water quality, erosion control, wildlife diversity, and many more. Using the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), NRCS helps cover the costs of forest restoration on private land.
OUR PHILOSOPHY: Human influence on forestland has resulted in forests that are very different than those prior to settlement.  Tree densities have increased and forests have become more uniform in age, species type, and structure (less variety in meadows, streams, etc.). As a result, forest habitats has declined over time. Since wildlife species require a variety of habitat types to thrive, forest diversity is critical to the success of wildlife populations. Insects and diseases can kill an entire forest when the trees do not reflect historical conditions. In addition, our highly dense forests lead to intense wildfires that travel far and wide, impacting human lives.
Restoring our forests to a state that is more representative of how they were structured before human influence, our forest land will have higher degrees of resilience to wildfire, bugs and diseases, droughts and floods, etc.

Am I eligible for cost-share through the EQIP?
The general eligibility requirements for EQIP are:                                                                                                                      1.) You own or have control over non-industrial forest land,                                                                                                    2.) You are in compliance with Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) requirements of earning less than $900,000 per year, 3.) You are willing to allow NRCS to create an EQIP plan of operations for your forest improvement project.

What is an EQIP plan of operations?
An EQIP plan of operations is the basis of having an EQIP contract, and is required before you can even apply to the program. NRCS will help assess your resource concerns on your property, and build the plan of operations.

How can I apply for EQIP funding?
Go to www.nrcs.usda.gov/getstarted or call/visit your local Conservation District Office at: Farm Services Administration/NRCS Field Office 2150 Center Ave., Building A, Ste. 116, Fort Collins, CO 80521.

How are applications chosen?                                                                                                                                            EQIP applications are ranked based on a number of factors, including the environmental benefits and cost effectiveness of the proposal. Certain factors are given higher weights, and the calculation of your project’s rank is done through an objective worksheet. Your NRCS District Conservationist will help with this portion of your application, and will be your contact regarding whether or not your project gets selected for EQIP funding.

What portion of costs does the EQIP cover?
The amount of money that EQIP will provide to conservation efforts depends on the work being done. EQIP can cover up to 75% of restoration costs, in some cases. Your Conservation Districts will work hard to find other organizations or grants that will cover the rest of the costs, but there is no guarantee of 100% cost-coverage.

When does EQIP funding pay for my project?
If your EQIP project is accepted and funded, you are expected to pay for (or implement) all conservation work being done on your land up-front. NRCS and Conservation District employees will be in frequent contact with you and the contractors doing the work on your land to ensure the plan of operations is being followed. As the project is completed in phases, your EQIP funding will be dispersed to you.

How long does it take to apply and find out if my project is funded?
EQIP applications are accepted throughout the year, but final submissions for projects are due by the 2nd week in January. Applicants will be notified within 2 months of the deadline through the NRCS District Conservationist whether or not their project is funded. If EQIP funding was not approved, your NRCS District Conservationist will work with you to determine the reasons why, and potentially
reapply the following year. If EQIP funding was approved, you will start implementing your plan of operations in that year.

How can the Conservation District Forester help with my project?

Your Conservation District Forester can help you with your EQIP project by:

Creating an inventory of trees on your property to understand the current state of your forest,                    Provide all forest-management-related materials required for you to submit your EQIP application,          Help hire contract-labor for your project,                                                                                                                    Ensure that contracts are adhering to your management plan.

What if I want to create a better habitat for a specific wildlife species?
Your Conservation District Forester can work with you to understand your goals and objectives for your property to ensure it aligns with the boundaries of NRCS restoration practices. As long as what you have in mind for your property doesn’t conflict with the requirements of the program, we can integrate your goals into your forest treatment.

How will this be beneficial to me?
Restoring your forest to its historic condition will make it more resilient to the threats of fire, insects and diseases. This resiliency will help preserve your forestland for future generations. In addition, your property value could increase and your insurance premiums could decrease based on the fact that you have actively mitigated fire threat to your trees and structures by creating a healthy stand of trees on your property.

Will this project keep my house safe from wildfire?
While the NRCS and Conservation District philosophy does not specifically address or guarantee the safety of your home in the event of a wildfire, restoring your forest to its historical structure may inherently provide wildland fire protection near and around your home because the forest itself will be resistant to the intense, destructive, and severe wildfires that we’ve seen on the Front Range over the last several years.

What other actions would help prevent severe wildfire damage?
Getting your neighbors involved is one of the best things we can do for our privately-owned forests. We can help an entire neighborhood apply for EQIP, enabling treatment to a much larger area of land and maximizing the benefits of a more resilient forest for many residents at a time.

How many trees will get cut down?
Depending on how dense your forest is now, the amount of trees that need to be removed to achieve historical standards could be a few to many. Since many of us have grown up with very dense forests, it can be surprising to see how open a Ponderosa Pine forest should be, based on historical research. Once we are in the middle of a treatment, if you choose not to continue, you will not receive your EQIP funding and you will be liable for all costs incurred by the project. Your District Forester will do their best to help you visualize the effect to your land before you enter an EQIP application to ensure you understand, and are excited for, the results of your project.

How will the trees on my property be removed?
Generally, since tree stands are so dense that a chainsaw crew could not manage the treatment efficiently, we utilize the use of heavy mechanical equipment. We implement a full tree-removal technique, since leaving dense logs, branches, and slash will only increase the risk and intensity of severe wildfires. Large logs that can remain intact will be removed intact and will support the local lumber industry. Logs that are cut in pieces, branches, and slash can be dealt with in a variety of ways, which your District Forester will help identify and outline in your treatment plan (i.e. firewood, mulch, etc.).

What happens after logging work is done?
Since improper use of logging can have long-term impacts on a landscape, we strive to address those potential impacts immediately following a treatment. Most Forest Improvement projects will be paired with weed control treatments to mitigate invasive species that usually follow a ground disturbance.

How long does a project take to be completed?
The time frame of your project depends on how large your treatment area is. Generally, we try to create plans that are achievable within 1 year. Your Conservation District Forester can help provide you with an estimate of how much can be done per year based on the size of your land and the intensity of forest improvement work that is required to meet the desired conditions.