When Pat O’Toole looks across the national forests on the Wyoming-Colorado border, where his family grazes sheep and cattle on both private and public lands, he sees a difficult situation — hundreds of thousands of acres of overcrowded and dead, downed trees.
“A forest like this does not generate water,” O’Toole, a Solutions from the Land board member, told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources during a Sept. 29 hearing to discuss pending legislation, including the Promoting Effective Forest Management Act of 2022.
Forests and grasslands across the American West once worked together as a sponge. Grazing animals naturally fertilized the land with their manure, building up the soil so it could hold water. Winter snows settled among the trees, gradually melting and soaking into the ground, recharging aquifers and providing much-needed moisture to the entire ecosystem.
Climate change has disrupted this cycle. Persistent periods of drought limit the amount of snow and rainfall received. Early thaws bring runoff down on frozen ground, into the streams, before it can seep into the soil and benefit plants.
Pine beetles move in and attack already weakened trees, and dead trees become fuel for dangerous wildfires.
But perhaps more troubling is the cumbersome bureaucratic system that has made it difficult for land managers to do anything about the situation. It’s not that national foresters, ranchers and others do not want to implement proactive land management. Decades of siloed, top-down management make it difficult for them to act, and prolonged litigation initiated by environmental activist groups create further delays.
“The situation is desperate, but the solutions are not impossible,” O’Toole says.
O’Toole leads Solutions from the Land’s Headwaters of the Colorado River Project, which will work toward the restoration of two severely degraded (nonfunctioning) 50,000-acre watersheds, one in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming and the other in the Routt National Forest in Colorado. The forests are the key source of the headwaters of the Colorado River, which sustains life for more than 40 million people across seven states. It also irrigates more than 5 million acres of agricultural lands to grow crops and provide wetland bird habitat.
Solutions from the Land is partnering on the project with private landowners, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and state foresters, as well as agroforestry, business, conservation and academic partners, including local conservation districts. The project is made possible thanks to a major gift from the Walton Family Foundation.
“Our vision is to restore these two forested rangelands to a resilient state that filters and stores water, produces protein, sustains wildlife and fisheries, sinks carbon, produces renewable energy feedstocks, and enables economically viable rural communities to thrive,” O’Toole says.
The project, which is currently in the design phase, will reflect scientific and local generational knowledge and experience to propose practical, flexible climate-smart adaptive management strategies that public and private landowners can embrace and invest in, together.
Legislation like the Promoting Effective Forest Management Act of 2022, which was introduced by U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and John Barrasso (R-WY) on Sept. 22, will help make the Headwaters of the Colorado project and others like it successful.
The bipartisan bill seeks to reduce catastrophic wildfire risk and improve forest health with provisions that direct the Forestry Service and Bureau of Land Management to prioritize accomplishments over rhetoric. The legislation would also require agencies to use at least one existing streamlined authority for environmental review on a forest management project within the next three years and to incentivize employees to become more engrained in their communities.
It also promotes the use of grazing as a tool for preventing wildfire.
“This bill is about implementation,” O’Toole says. “That’s why it is so critically important. I am encouraged that it reflects the concerns of the men and women on the ground regarding the urgency of implementing forest restoration and management.”