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Upper South Platte Watershed Protection and Restoration Project


Southwest of Denver, Colorado

Case Description


The Upper South Platte River Watershed is a critical watershed that provides approximately eighty percent of the drinking water for the 1.5 million residents of the Denver Metropolitan area. In 1996, the Buffalo Creek fire burned 11,900-forested acres in this watershed. The torrential rains that followed washed so much silt from the denuded landscape into Denver’s main water intake structure that the structure was closed for over three weeks, threatening Denver’s drinking water supply. Lingering smoke and ash contaminated a neighboring reservoir and city residents had to drink water with a smoky, frog-like taste for over a week. The Buffalo Creek fire served as a wake-up call for the host of land management agencies and water providers in the region. Rocky Wiley, Manager of Planning for the Denver Water Department recalled, “We got a black eye from that. Though the public was understanding, it proved to the Forest Service and others what could happen because of these fires and this was only an 11,000-acre fire!” Officials from the US Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado State Forest Service, and USDA Forest Service immediately recognized the need to begin working collaboratively and across jurisdictions in order to better manage the risk of catastrophic fire along Colorado’s Front Range.


Catastrophic forest fires have sparked the formation of collaborative partnerships throughout the western United States. The Upper South Platte Watershed Protection and Restoration Project is a prime example of the forces that can bring together both agency and non-agency partners at the local, state and federal levels to begin grappling with a problem that is bigger than any one of them can deal with alone. Once proceeding in a more collaborative manner, these agencies were better able to capitalize on existing scientific research, conduct complimentary restoration projects and, moreover, coordinate monitoring and evaluation initiatives in order to enhance their understanding across agencies of landscape scale fire and water quality issues. This case tells the story of the progress that can be made when groups build strong linkages between scientists and managers, adopt a learning mode that includes systematic experimentation and monitoring, and build the political and budgetary support to move forward.


The Watershed


Location map  of the watershed ©  http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/CSFS/platte/southplatte.htmlThe Upper South Platte River watershed is located southwest of Denver, Colorado. The watershed covers approximately 1.7 million acres, 500,000 acres of which lie within the Pike National Forest. The remaining acreage is divided among private landowners, Denver Water (the agency responsible for providing water to the City of Denver), and the State of Colorado. The region is of paramount economic importance because of its proximity to Denver. In addition to providing most of Denver’s water supply, the basin is also the playground for city residents and out-of-state tourists, with over two million visitor days per year. Denver’s population is growing rapidly at 2.5 percent or 40,000 people per year so the South Platte as a source of water and recreation is increasingly in demand. The Upper South Platte River offers gold medal fishing reaches for trout enthusiasts; in other parts of the watershed visitors enjoy popular recreational activities such as sightseeing, camping, hiking, mountain biking, motorcycle and ATV riding, cross country skiing, boating, and hunting.


Similar to other regions in the arid mountain west, the two most significant environmental challenges in the region are water supply and catastrophic fire. According to Merrill Kaufmann, an ecologist at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, forests in the Upper South Platte breed catastrophic fire because they are “out of whack” with historical or more sustainable conditions. Over the past century, forest management in the basin has resulted in dense stands of small trees when compared to pre-1900 conditions. These small trees can serve as ladders that allow surface fires to climb their branches, spreading fire to the forest canopy. Crown or canopy fires can easily spread across large areas to consume huge forested areas. Burgeoning population growth in the area is exacerbating the threat of fire as more and more communities continue to sprawl into ‘high risk’ areas.


For many, the Buffalo Creek fire was a clear sign that something had to be done to address fire along Colorado’s Front Range. Following the fire, the Environmental Protection Agency commissioned a “Red Zone” assessment of the Front Range from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins to identify areas where forests and neighboring communities were most susceptible to catastrophic fire. Building on the findings in the assessment, the Colorado State Forester began crafting objectives for a landscape approach to management that would entail cross-boundary and inter-agency land management. The Forest Service Regional Forester also recognized the need to manage landscapes across boundaries and appointed the regional silviculturist to work with the Colorado State Forest Service and EPA to find ways to collaborate to address the threat of fires and to identify demonstration areas where some of the restoration recommendations from the Red Zone study could be implemented. At the same time, ecologist Merrill Kaufmann was meeting with various land management personnel in the basin. Based on his research in the Upper South Platte, Kaufmann stressed that the Buffalo Creek fire would not have been nearly as intense or destructive if forest conditions had been more like pre-1900 conditions.


Linking Science and Management


After some initial meetings organized by the Colorado State Forest Service, and involving representatives from EPA, the USDA Forest Service, the Rocky Mountain Research Station, Colorado State University, and Denver Water, the idea for a large-scale, interagency restoration project to reduce the threat of fire along the Front Range was born. The parties discussed potential demonstration sites to test restoration strategies and settled on a 645,000-acre segment of the Upper South Platte basin because of the area’s importance to Denver, and the fact that Kaufmann and other scientists understood the area’s historical ecological conditions. Kaufmann recounted the first few days of the loosely formed partnership and noted that it was not one individual that spearheaded the group but rather a “harmonic convergence of people and ideas.” He continued, “we had six or eight of us in a van driving around the Upper South Platte looking over the area…we all got talking about what it would take to actually do some restoration work so that Denver Water and other players didn’t have the same kind of problem.”


According to Kaufmann, from the beginning the agencies were interested in what science could tell managers about healthy or historical forest conditions and how management could put science into practice to restore the landscape. Kaufmann stressed that he and his team of scientists at the Rocky Mountain Research Station had already studied fire histories in the Upper South Platte and that researchers would be hard pressed to find another demonstration site in Colorado that is better understood. Thus, according to Kaufmann, “science could be a significant role player [in restoration in the Upper South Platte] because it could provide some of the underpinnings to justify some treatment of the forest that would lead to better ecological conditions and those same treatments would also help mitigate the wildfire problem.” Hence, the Upper South Platte seemed like a perfect demonstration site to try different restoration techniques because there was a reasonably clear idea of the kinds of on-the-ground conditions managers wanted to recreate.


Building Support for their Initiative


While these individuals “in the field” recognized that they needed to be working together to deal with fire, they also recognized that they would not get very far without the support – both financial and political – of their agencies’ leadership. In September 1998, members of the fledgling partnership developed a strategic plan outlining the steps that they felt were needed to present to then Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck. In less than a month, they crafted a vision statement and goals for a basin-wide restoration effort and entitled the project the Upper South Platte Watershed Protection and Restoration Project. The idea of implementing a large-scale restoration effort fit within Chief Dombeck’s focus on watershed-wide management, especially because the Forest Service manages approximately eighty percent of the land in the Upper South Platte basin. The agency provided direct funding for the project, in addition to funds from Denver Water and the Colorado State Forest Service. The Upper South Platte Watershed Protection and Restoration Project was launched.


The group’s vision is to promote:

“sustainable forest conditions within the watershed and surrounding forest area that enable the forest ecosystem to thrive and function over time while adapting to changing environmental and social conditions.”

And its four project goals are to:

1. Reduce the risks of large catastrophic fires occurring;
2. Reduce the risk to human life and property;
3. Protect water quality for all users; and
4. Create a program of continuous and effective forest management through integrated research, continuous monitoring and adaptive management techniques.


Establishing Critical Connections

With strong backing from the Forest Service and others, the group next considered how to structure themselves to implement the project. Many of the agencies were already participating in the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP), a large coalition of local, state, and federal governmental agencies, citizens, business groups, and environmentalists who work together to discuss resource management issues in the Upper South Platte Watershed. EPA, the Forest Service, the Colorado State Forest Service, and Denver Water decided to organize themselves as a sub-committee of CUSP in order to capitalize on the already existing communication channels and networks in CUSP. These agencies structured the sub-committee as a steering committee comprised of themselves as well as some new members from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Executive Director of CUSP who serves as the official liaison between the steering committee and CUSP. The parties jointly crafted a charter for the steering committee, outlining the roles and responsibilities of members and later developed a business plan to guide the everyday workings of the group from project conceptualization to implementation to follow-up.


The Steering Committee was formalized in 1999 and today meets every one or two months. Steering Committee Chair, Dave Hessel, a forty-year USFS veteran who now works for the Colorado State Forest Service, coordinates meetings and reports for the restoration project. Today, the Project encompasses a series of sub-projects associated with restoring forestlands within the basin to historical conditions less susceptible to catastrophic fire. It is touted as a major initiative involving application of pre-existing data on current and historical forest conditions to guide the implementation of various restoration projects, as well as related monitoring studies to determine the impact of individual restoration efforts.


An Adaptive Management Approach


Perhaps the group’s most significant accomplishment and strength is its ability to put adaptive management into practice. An overriding goal of the project is to experiment and demonstrate how integrated landscape-scale forest treatments can be effective in reducing the threat of fire. This requires a project planning process grounded in applying science to practice. From the beginning, ecologist Merrill Kaufmann has been an active member of the steering committee and has been instrumental in designing the project’s adaptive management approach. As described in detail below, the group’s strategy for implementing adaptive management includes four key stages:

1) understanding the system to be restored by conducting a landscape assessment,
2) asking key monitoring questions,
3) identifying core demonstration sites to test ideas, and
4) sustaining research to meet management needs.


1. Landscape Assessment


Kaufmann stressed that before they launched the restoration project, they had to understand the system in which they worked. He noted that scientists and the managers who work with them should always ask the question: “Do you have enough science that says that whatever you are proposing to do here is going to work in the right direction ecologically? If you fail to answer that question, it makes you all the more vulnerable to the appeal process.” According to Kaufmann, the steering committee already had a strong science base to draw from when designing the restoration project – the result of years of studies within the Upper South Platte. This information provided a useful roadmap for the kinds of conditions the parties wanted to replicate. Using Kaufmann’s data and additional field surveys, the group completed a landscape assessment of the 645,000-acre basin in 1999 to better understand the region’s ecological state and craft strategies to restore the area to historical conditions.


The steering committee’s landscape assessment was well thought out and reasonably comprehensive. Kaufmann noted, “In any kind of good ecological assessment, what you would do is to take current conditions and evaluate them against a backdrop of reference conditions. The reference conditions tell you historically what went on in these ecosystems, and [to some extent] a historical backdrop tells us what is a sustainable ecosystem.” The group’s assessment involved both coarse and fine-filter analysis. A coarse filter analysis asks the question whether the current structure of the overall system is like the historical conditions or significantly departed from it. To participants in the steering committee, the coarse filter analysis suggested that the current forest structure in the Upper South Platte was fairly homogenous and generally made up of small diameter trees, a structure that differs considerably from historical conditions. Hence, through the coarse filter analysis, the parties were able to design restoration prescriptions to alter the landscape to be more consistent with historical conditions.


By contrast, the committee’s fine filter analysis looked at the factors that fall through the cracks when people are strictly focused on the large scale. Where the coarse filter analysis looks at the overall structure of an ecosystem, the fine filter analysis focuses on the smaller elements such as threatened species or a particularly unique habitat that comprise the system. The steering committee identified the unique habitat needs of threatened species in the basin, including the Pawnee montane skipper that depends exclusively on one species of flower, the gayfeather.


The group’s landscape assessment offered a simplifying and unifying way to understand the condition of the landscape, and to set more specific goals and strategies for restoration. Some of the goals that emerged from the assessment included the need to manage vegetation in the watershed to reduce the risk of fire, to reduce soil erosion along roads and trails, and to promote landscape-scale management to protect water quality and quantity.


2. Monitoring


With the landscape assessment complete, a sub-committee was created to spearhead the monitoring component of the project. The monitoring sub-committee focused on the task of identifying key questions and indicators to evaluate the impact of individual restoration projects. Efforts to select monitoring questions were initially fairly haphazard and the group generated an enormous laundry list of possible questions and indicators that could be examined. The group found direction by focusing on the coarse and fine filter analysis in the landscape assessment. Building on the coarse and fine filter analysis, the monitoring sub-committee was able to select key questions such as: ‘Are the treatments resulting in the kinds of landscape outcomes intended?’ And, more narrowly, ‘What is the impact of the treatments on critical species and habitats within the basin?’


The group selected indicators or metrics to be tracked over time to answer their questions. For example, the group wondered whether the overstory at a project site could be altered through prescribed burns to better mimic historical overstory characteristics. At some of the project sites where prescribed burns had been applied as a restoration tool, monitoring professionals have returned to the sites year after year to study attributes of the overstory as indicators against which current conditions can be compared with the historical conditions that are the ultimate goal of the treatments. As Fred Patten, Project Coordinator for the South Platte Ranger District, commented, “This is my 34th year with the Forest Service, and while we’ve done monitoring, I’ve never had a program where you are actually doing the monitoring and using the information to then do adaptive management.”


3. Demonstration Sites


The group next identified core demonstration sites on which to try out their new treatments. Many members of the partnership point to the group’s emphasis on learning from demonstration projects as the key to their success. For example, an annual monitoring program was designed in 2000 to study the effects of prescribed burns and other restoration efforts on the endangered Pawnee montane skipper butterfly. There is continuing uncertainty about how the butterfly will respond to prescribed burns, however, scientists assume burns will ultimately benefit its habitat. Today, under the partnership, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and Denver Water are counting adult skippers and blooming prairie gayfeather (the butterfly’s only nectar source) in sample plots to compare areas where vegetation has been treated with those not treated, in order to understand skipper survival and habitat conditions in burned and unburned landscapes. Thus far, sampling efforts suggest that recent drought and wildfires have adversely impacted the skippers, while forest thinning projects may have a beneficial effect on skipper habitat. Importantly, the monitoring efforts have helped the parties adapt the way in which they conduct prescriptions to create the most beneficial habitat for the butterfly.


Many participants recount the first demonstration project led by Denver Water as a meaningful lesson in adaptive management – learning by doing. As a non-federal agency, Denver Water was not required to follow a long-term National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) planning process to treat some of its lands for restoration. Thus, early in the partnership’s history, Denver Water contracted with the Colorado State Forest Service to oversee mechanical prescriptions on Denver Water land. Following the treatments, Chuck Dennis, the state forester who planned the treatments invited steering committee members to the site to see the effects of the treatments and discuss potential improvements. Many parties learned a great deal from this first restoration initiative. Merrill Kaufmann attended and was able to suggest modifications such as where trees could be clumped a bit more instead of being uniformly distributed as well as where the density of trees could be further reduced. Denver Water’s follow-up treatments incorporated Kaufmann’s recommendations and later treatments on National Forest lands were also guided by Kaufmann’s suggestions.


One of the earliest initiatives under the project involved a 200-acre mechanical treatment on Denver Water’s land. With funding through the National Fire Plan, the Colorado State Forest Service has also recently completed over 100 acres of fuel breaks and additional acres in defensible space on private lands in the region. The forests where these early prescriptions took place were not significantly damaged by the massive Hayman Fire in 2002. National Fire Plan funds had helped the Forest Service complete the 8,000-acre Polhemus prescribed burn in the fall of 2001, the objective of which was to reduce ladder fuels on national forest land. According to the annual report, “during the Hayman Fire, the value and impact of the Polhemus prescribed burn became apparent, being credited with causing the high-intensity wildfire to drop to the ground, enabling firefighting crews to finally get a line around that portion of the fire” and saving over 30 homes and preventing the fires incursion into highly populated areas of southwest metropolitan Denver. Wiley at Denver Water noted that some of the prescriptions and prescribed burns that have occurred have “shown everyone that in fact the Forest Service does know what to do to the forest to alleviate these tremendous fires that harm us all. It’s going to cost a lot of money and take a lot of time but in fact there is a plan out there.”


While the parties have been working on the long-term process of designing and implementing projects, and further scaling up the size of prescriptions, researchers at the Rocky Mountain Research Station have continued to refine their idea of what the landscape should look like on a coarse scale. They have continued to conduct studies to better estimate how much of the landscape would have been in different categories of tree density and how species were historically mixed across the landscape. The goal is to keep science in pace with and relevant to management needs which, as many managers on the project point out, has occurred in the Upper South Platte.

This site was developed by the Ecosystem Management Initiative through a partnership with the US Forest Service and the US Department of Interior. Read more.

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