Rocky Mountain Research Station

Our second stop of our nerd tour was at the Rocky Mountain Research Station, which is the research arm of the US Forest Service.  I had met one of their scientists when she came out to DC, and she made the offer, “Come see us!”  I was intrigued by learning more about forestry research, so I sent her and email and told her to be careful what she wished for since I would like to come.  We were joined by the Fort Collins area Bennet regional director, so along with my Beloved Husband, we made a good audience.  My BH did get a crash course in forestry, but he’s a smart one, and I think he enjoyed the deluge of information.

We were on the brink of not going because northern Colorado got a May 1st snowstorm.  With all my knowledge of how dire the drought has been, I have promised not to complain about any inclement weather, but it was not entirely pleasant.  Besides, the locals did my complaining for me.  Just the day before, the weather had been in the 70’s, so the roads were warm and the snow didn’t stick.  Driving was very bright with all the white snow; I felt as though my pupils had contracted to pinpoints and were still taking in too much light, but we made it without any troubles.

A May snow storm

A May snow storm

Just like every Senate office has its own character, so too does every federal agency.  The Forest Service was designed to be decentralized since different procedures and practices must be optimized to different environments.  The Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) covers territory from Montana to New Mexico as part of the inner mountain West, so they still have enormous scope.

Our first pair of scientists talked about water issues, especially as they relate to federal lands.  Across the country, 18% of the water supply starts as runoff from Forest Service land, and in Colorado, that proportion increases to 68%, so there is a strong link between water supply and the health of forest lands.  There was a recent study completed using a single consistent set of methods to look at all the major watersheds across the country to establish the level of water stress expected in the future, and not surprisingly, the already over-allocated Colorado River basin is looking rather dire.  There are follow-up studies being performed on regional watersheds, which will probably have a better chance of inspiring action since it will be easier to work with a smaller number of stakeholders.

As a side note, I was well aware that I was dealing with true scientists since they invariably used the word, data, correctly as a plural.  For example, “There weren’t enough good data.”  It made me smile since that’s one of my own hard-learned lessons.

Our next presenter came to us remotely from Missoula, where all the fire research is centered.  Since the forestry research for the Rockies is dispersed among multiple sites, the group frequently uses remote conferencing technology that includes the ability to share PowerPoint slides. The fire guy mainly discussed the 2002 Hayman fire that held the previous record for the largest fire in Colorado and burned between Denver and Colorado Springs.  Prior to 2012, the state averaged a major fire every other year, but last summer, there were six large fires, and there is a general sense that this is the new norm.  Colorado weather is highly variable, and fires tend to expand rapidly when the relative humidity drops below 10% and when the winds kick up above 30 mph.  Our expert also talked about the importance of fuel treatments and what kind of treatments are most important.  It’s important to keep trees and brush away from a house in the WUI, but the small fuels are also important.  The house of a man whose last act before evacuating was to cut his grass might be spared from a fire whereas a neighbor’s house burned down.

With all of that information so well established about the behaviors of fire and how to reduce individual risk, the question immediately arises why people don’t do more or even willfully don’t clear the brush around their houses.  The next scientist talked about the human element, programs to educate people about the risks of living in the WUI and what can be done about it.  For example, people who learn about fire risk in the WUI from the media don’t do much about it.  A much smaller number of people will learn of risks and treatments from their local fire departments, but those people are much more likely to take action.  We were also rather stunned that even after a fire has burned in the area, many people continue to ignore the risks.  She didn’t have time to talk about, “the really awesome project,” which left me wanting to go back just to hear more about that.

One of the most fascinating parts of her project was that before all the risk data were available, people actually paid more money for houses that had significant wildfire risk factors such as wood roofs, because these attractive features were not identified as risks.  After the risk data were available, people paid less money for these risky properties.  Her interpretation was, “People don’t pay more money for higher risk.  Teenagers don’t buy houses.”

We next went on a walking tour of the labs.  Our first guide was a plant geneticist who talked about the challenges of the White Pine Blister Rust that is a pathogen that wiped out the white pine population in the Northwest to the point that the Western White Pine is now an endangered species.  We talked a bit about the Mountain Pine Beetle, which has been causing extensive damage in Colorado as well, and I was familiar with some of those issues because of my work in the office.

Oddly, one of the strangest parts of this experience was that the scientist had swiped the bowl of fresh strawberries from our meeting room and brought them down to the lab for snacks.  In chemistry labs, we just don’t put our food next to our samples!

Strawberries and pine cones

Strawberries and pine cones

Our last stop was in the water quality lab, which had more than enough instruments to keep a chemist happy.  Some of the projects in that lab included looking at the water quality of forests and how they are affected by logging, insect damage, and wildfire.

Once again, it was fascinating to look at forests and water from multiple perspectives and see how research projects overlap.  I’m enormously grateful to everyone who took the time to talk to us and share even a tiny fragment of their knowledge.

The drive down to Boulder was snowy but smooth.  More nerdiness to come!

Much needed precipitation!

Much needed precipitation!


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Filed under Brain Food, Colorado, Work

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