Best of the West: Improving post-fire restoration; a historic sale of carbon credits; developing an electric vehicle for the Baja-1000; and a western Thomas Crown Affair

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting June 6, 2022. (Photos courtesy of Christian Murdock and Susan Montoya Bryan)

When the Hayman Fire sparked in Colorado 20 years ago this week (June 8, 2002), it incinerated 138,000 acres of forest. Though many at the time thought it was an anomaly – burning bigger, faster and hotter than most fire managers thought possible and diminishing the natural vegetation’s ability to regenerate as a result— it turned out to be a harbinger of the region’s future fire regime. The lessons learned from the Hayman Fire, however, have led to systemic changes in forest management and post-fire restoration efforts that have helped many western communities recover from similarly uncharacteristic fires and begin to build more resilient forests. 

For starters, the Hayman Fire brought much-needed attention to the effects of post-fire erosion and flooding. “It spurred us to action as we saw not only the effects of the fire, but the post-fire erosion and flooding that were more damaging than the fire itself,” Brian Banks, the South Platte River District Ranger, told the Pikes Peak Courier. That attention has prompted government agencies, utilities and even private companies to dramatically increase resources for post-fire restoration.   

The White River National Forest in Colorado was recently allocated over $2 million for restoration work in the Grizzly Creek and Sylvan Fire burn areas. The funds are part of the 2021 Extending Government Funding and Delivering Emergency Assistance Act, which provided $85 million to the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain region to recover and restore national forests, watersheds and communities impacted by 2020 and 2021 wildfires. 

Using funds from the Forest Service’s 10-year strategy to confront the wildfire crisis and improve forest resilienceThe Umpqua National Forest in Oregon partnered with the National Forest Foundation and the Arbor Day Foundation to plant 440,000 tree seedlings across the million-acre burn scar left behind by Labor Day fire. 

But while money is always good, with so much acreage affected (20,000 acres within the Umpqua National Forest still need to be replated), new tools are needed to make a real impact. After the East Troublesome Fire tore through Colorado in 2021, crews used helicopters to re-seed and mulch 5,000 acres in the Willow Creek Reservoir watershed.

In New Mexico, crews working the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire started post-fire erosion control before the fire had even been fully contained.

In Arizona, a coalition of government agencies, nonprofits and businesses are collaborating to restore the wildfire burn scar left behind by the Bush Fire by rescuing cacti from construction sites and replanting them in affected areas. 

At the University of California Riverside, ecologists are collaborating with the US Forest Service to develop strategies for the restoration of chaparral shrublands so that these biodiversity hotspots rebound with native plants after a fire. They’re also tracking the progress of burned conifer forests that were replanted with more drought-tolerant pine species that normally grow at lower, drier elevations.

To help in these replanting efforts, researchers at New Mexico State University’s Forestry Research Center saved precious seeds used to rebuild resilient forests and created models that predict the best locations to plant seedlings after wildfires. Additionally, the state’s Forestry Division and several universities submitted an $80 million proposal to the federal government for a reforestation pipeline that includes seed collection, seed sowing in nurseries and the location. 

Of course, some landscapes are so irreparably altered that communities have no other choice than to adapt. “Hayman is one of the many examples we have from the western U.S. of those fires from around 2000 that, really, (the forest) is not coming back,” Camille Stevens-Rumann, the assistant director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, told the Colorado Sun. “But it’s really important to acknowledge that it’s not a lost landscape. There’s still value to grassland or shrubland. And it’s up to us to make sure that that’s still a healthy ecosystem — even if we can’t reforest every part of it.”

After the Caldor Fire destroyed five Sierra-at-Tahoe ski lifts in 2020, "we're no longer dealing with a pristine forest,” John Rice, the resort general manager, said. "We've got a burnt landscape, so how do we utilize the terrain and the natural resources to create a ski product that will be next level for people?" Other wildfire-affected landscapes in California are seeing a ‘gold rush’ of morel mushrooms that have a symbiotic relationship with burned trees. The influx of mushrooms is creating a market for commercial and recreational hunters. 

Learn more about post-fire restoration by listening to WGA's 'Out West' podcast

Historic Sale of Carbon Credits: Regen Network Development, a Delaware-based blockchain software development company, bought $1 million in carbon credits generated by a 46-acre forest in Issaquah, Washington. The deal is being hailed as the largest single sale of urban forest credits in U.S. history. The money will be used by the county, the city of Issaquah and the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, among others, to further protect and conserve urban forests, according to the county. “We will steward the newly protected urban forests so they can continue to absorb carbon, contribute to cleaner air and water, and create more green space where people, families, and communities can gather,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a news release. Learn more about conservation markets by watching WGA's Working Lands Working Communites Initiative webinar series

The Wind Beneath Montana’s Wings: Stillwater County in Montana approved plans for a $253 million wind farm that will incorporate large batteries for storing energy – the renewable energy project in Montana to do so. When the wind is blowing, the project will generate enough energy to power 227,000 homes. When the wind stops blowing, the batteries will produce 20 megawatts of power (enough to power nearly 4,000 homes) for three-and-a-half to four hours. 

Racing Into the Future: Six aspiring electrical engineers at the Colorado School of Mines raised $50,000 via email solicitations and cold calls to develop an electric vehicle capable of competing in the Baja 1000-off road race. If it completes the grueling race, considered one of the world’s toughest off-road races, famed as a proving ground for new vehicles, it will be the first EV to ever do so.

A Western Thomas Crown Affair: "Woman-Ochre," a painting from the Dutch American master William de Kooning was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985. Three decades later the $100 million painting was recovered from a New Mexico antique store. This week, after being painstakingly refurbished, the painting was showcased as part of an exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angles, California for the first time since it was stolen. 

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