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Climate Change-Fueled Forest Loss in Colorado Shows Need for More Wilderness Protections

Connected preserves especially important as pine beetle continues to wreak havoc

As conservationists prepare to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act, there’s also a measure of hand-wringing occurring as some people question whether wilderness protections even make sense given the new challenge of climate change.

For land preservationists here in Colorado, the answer to that question is an unambiguous YES. As the planet warms the need for wilderness designation is more important than ever, especially as ecosystems confront unprecedented threats.

pine bettle infested lodgepole forestAll photos by Steven DeWittMany forests in Colorado are being impacted by epidemic insect infestations.

In the Central Mountains of Colorado, citizens have come together in an effort to add and expand areas they feel need wilderness designation. The proposed wilderness areas were chosen after a comprehensive evaluation of their ecological values including wildlife habitat, free-flowing streams, clean lakes, and old growth forests. Congressman Jared Polis is reintroducing his Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act this year and Senator Mark Udall is introducing his Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Act in 2015. Udall's wilderness proposal incorporates 235,773 acres, 12 new stand alone areas and 17 additions to existing wilderness areas in Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties including the Holy Cross, the Eagles Nest and the Maroon Bells.

Historic logging roads in Colorado mountainsOld logging roads are once again being used to harvest timber in lodgepole pine stands killed by mountain pine beetles.

Many of the forests included in the proposed wilderness areas have been or are currently being impacted by historic epidemics of insect infestations and disease as a result of human-generated climate change. The loss of these forests is having cascading impacts on the biodiversity of the ecosystems.

This spring and early summer, I visited a number of the areas included in the Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Act, both on the ground and in the air. Having previously photographed many of these forests for The Lodgepole Project, I wasn’t surprised to see the widespread devastation Colorado’s lodgepole pine forests have suffered from the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

What did surprise me was the ease of accessibility into the impacted forests via historic logging roads. Take, for example, Spraddle Creek and Freeman Creek, two proposed expansions to the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area north of Vail. Both areas were selected for wilderness expansion because of their critical importance as a transitional wildlife buffer zone between the urban development in Vail and the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.

Clearcut in Spraddle Creek & Logging OperationWithout the protection of wilderness designation, the largely intact ecosystems of Spraddle Creek are severely threatened.

The western side of the Spraddle Creek area is bounded by several historic logging roads used heavily by locals and tourists alike for recreation. Sections of those roads are once again being used to harvest timber in lodgepole pine stands killed by mountain pine beetles. These existing roads are also being used to cut new logging roads into previously roadless areas to access the trees. Without the protection of wilderness designation, the largely intact ecosystems of Spraddle Creek are severely threatened.

The lodgepoles, aspens and spruce in the Freeman Creek area can all be accessed via an abandoned logging road that very could easily be reopened and enlarged without the protection of wilderness designation. The same is true for the other proposed wilderness areas adjacent to the Holy Cross Wilderness, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness and the Ptarmigan Peak Wilderness. Without wilderness designation each one of these treasures are left vulnerable to logging and mining.

Forests in the No Name Proposed Wilderness Expansion Area - Central ColoradoTwo proposed wilderness bills would protect more than 200,000 acres of Colorado forest.

As we can see in Colorado, climate change is going to make already-isolated wildlands even more susceptible to fragmentation and stress. To create a network of preserves that are large, connected, and resilient, we need more wilderness than ever before.

A very special thank you to Lighthawk and Lighthawk volunteer pilot Jim Grady for their help creating aerial photographs of the proposed wilderness expansion areas as well as White River Wild for their invaluable information and support.

Steven DeWitt
Steven DeWitt is a Colorado based outdoor adventure and conservation photographer.

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