Powder Hounds and Access to Play

This blog post was inspired by  Cutting Lines by Solomon Freeski TV, which describes the unique relationship between active forest management and skiing on Canada’s forested lands.  

With 60 percent of all alpine skiing happening on National Forests, powder hounds are recreating on many National Forest lands. The U.S. Forest Service and the ski industry have enjoyed a unique history since the first ski resorts – Sun Valley, Alta, and others –opened. However, the origins of recreational access for skiing, hiking, mountain biking, snowmobiling, or any other use is more complex than you might expect.

Alpine skiing

In the U.S., access to skiable terrain is often available via the same roads that were built long ago to connect mining outposts and timber towns with forest-based industrial activities that take place on some National Forests. While roads that access ski resorts are well-maintained, some of the other roads are no longer maintained and cause damage to ecosystems. From sending sediment into streams and rivers, to promoting the spread of invasive weeds, these problem roads will degrade our streams and rivers unless they are decommissioned. Other roads are important portals to backcountry access, and should be repaired as needed and maintained properly in the future.

What is the National Forest Foundation doing?

As part of the Ski Conservation Fund, a signature partnership between the National Forest Foundation and the ski industry, the National Forest Foundation matches every $10 contributed by ski resort visitors with an additional $5. The NFF then invests the funds in projects back on the National Forest where the resort operates. On 11 National Forests across the U.S., Ski Conservation Fund projects are keeping trails open, improving recreational access, reducing invasive species, rehabilitating overused recreation areas, and making sure powder hounds still have plenty of places to play.

Cottonwood Canyons Foundation

For your next ski vacation, book your travel with one of the National Forest Foundation’s Ski Conservation Fund partners. Learn more here.

Another way to get involved…

Around the country, National Forests are also revising their land and resource management plans under the new 2012 forest planning rule. The revision process will determine where lines are drawn on the map for multiple values – logging, mining…and play. Participating in a forest planning process is a great way to learn more about recreational access, share your knowledge about local roads and recreational access, and plan for future recreational designations.


New Browns Canyon National Monument Highlights Recreational, Ecological and Historical Importance

Our National Forests contain countless special areas – landscapes with awesome vistas, habitat for key wildlife species, areas with boundless recreation opportunities, and grounds that hold important historic artifacts. Last week, President Obama recognized a part of our National Forest System that has all of these attributes and more when he designated Browns Canyon National Monument in Colorado .

Browns Canyon National Monument
Photo by Bob Wick and courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

Situated two and a half hours southwest of Denver, in the Arkansas River Valley, Browns Canyon is perhaps best known for its whitewater rafting and fly fishing opportunities. The landscape, however, holds so much more. Leaving the canyon’s class III-IV whitewater and hiking east, you pick your way through a dry pinon-juniper forest and maze of colorful rock outcroppings. As you climb higher, moving through Bureau of Land Management lands and onto the Pike-San Isabel National Forest, the rocky terrain gives way to ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests, scattered with stands of aspen.

Browns Canyon National Monument
Photo by Bob Wick and courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

With little visitation outside of the river corridor, wildlife viewing opportunities abound. The area provides habitat for bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, mountain lions, bobcats, black bears, coyotes, red and gray foxes, and pine martens. Golden eagles, bald eagles, hawks, and countless other birds frequent the canyon. The area also hides evidence of historic peoples that used the area over 10,000 years ago.

Browns Canyon National Monument
Photo by Bob Wick and courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

Browns Canyon, which sits less than five miles from my back door, has served as my family’s weekend playground since we moved to Salida, Colorado two years ago. Whether paddling the canyon during spring runoff, stalking trout in its cool waters during the summer, admiring the bright yellow aspen above the canyon in autumn, or soaking up the winter sun on a southwesterly facing rock outcropping in the winter, my family has developed an incredible appreciation for this special place. With this National Monument designation, the incredible value of this area has finally been recognized at the national level. Now, others will have the chance to enjoy this protected area forever into the future.

Click here to learn more about the Browns Canyon National Monument.


NFF Partner Aspen Center for Environmental Studies Develops Forest Health Index

The Forest Health Index is a groundbreaking new tool developed by Aspen Center for Environmental Studies to help Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley community make sense of the complex environmental conditions affecting our local forest. Our forest is the dominant feature of our local landscape, providing critical ecosystem services such as clean air and water as well as aesthetic and recreational benefits. Forest health, in large part, equates to environmental health.

Maroon Bells
The Maroon Bells Wilderness provides drinking water for locales as far away as Los Angeles, emphasizing the need to monitor air and water quality in our high elevation forests.

ACES’ Forest Health Index provides an annual “report card” for our watershed’s forests, utilizing data from over 20 climatic, ecological, and socioeconomic indicators. Examples include: 

  • Frost Free Days 
  • Critical Fire Risk
  • High Elevation Snowpack
  • Soil Moisture (monitoring supported by a National Forest Foundation grant!)
  • Insect and Disease Infestation
  • Elk Population Health
  • Wilderness Use
Mountain Pine Beetle Damage
The Forest Health Index monitors insect and disease infestations, such as the mountain pine beetle damage pictured here.

But what defines a healthy forest? Our notion of forest health is based on the premise that a healthy forest is one that is resilient to change and able to provide for local ecology as well as human goals. To that end, the Index is analyzed through the lens of four widely agreed upon public goals for forest health, which are:

Insect Damaged Forest
The Forest Health Index is utilized by local agencies to make land management decisions. This insect-damaged forest adjacent to the city of Aspen has since been restored.

How are the Forest Health Index scores calculated? Essential aspects of forest health such as resiliency are difficult to measure, especially within systems as large and complex as a forest. To create a scoring system that applies across such diverse datasets, the score for any given indicator is based on the magnitude of change between the current state of that indicator and its historic or “normal” state. An indicator with a score of 100 signifies virtually no departure from “normal” conditions. To that end, the Forest Health Index is truly a metric of forest change.

The overall Forest Health Index score for the Roaring Fork Watershed in 2014 was a 78 out of 100, indicating a moderate departure from natural variability, ecosystem function, and sustainable use. 

Forest Index Chart

The overarching goal of the Index is to communicate changes in the health of our forest, generate community dialogue, and inform management and policy efforts. Users of the Forest Health Index include: 

  • Land Managers 
  • Research Scientists
  • Educators
  • Local Residents and Visitors

Modeled after the international Ocean Health Index, we are currently exploring ways to export the Forest Health Index to other mountain communities. To explore ACES’ Forest Health Index, please visit www.foresthealthindex.org .

Capitol Peak
Although this forest on the flanks of Capitol Peak is stunning to look at, a Forest Health Index score of 78 indicates that our high elevation ecosystems are not functioning the way they used to.

The Forest Health Index is a project of Aspen Center for Environmental Studies . ACES is partnering with Aspen Global Change Institute to design the index, gather and analyze data, engage with stakeholders, and evaluate its scientific accuracy. For inquiries about the Forest Health Index please contact ACES Forest Programs Director, Jamie Cundiff at jcundiff@aspennature.org or 970-925-5756.


Four Interesting Facts about Mushrooms on Our National Forests

Mushrooms support a thriving economy

Wild mushrooms are popular fan-fare in gourmet restaurants across the country, and if you’re a fan of wild mushrooms, you may have noticed that they’re more expensive than the typical mushroom you buy in a grocery store. Morels , for example, can sell for upwards of $20/pound in your local grocery store. Why are they so expensive? Because they often grow in remote locations deep in our forests and it requires hard work and dedication to pick them .

Tens of thousands of commercial mushroom harvesters gather mushrooms from our National Forests every year. As mushrooms make their way from the forest to the restaurant table, their dollar value increaseses dramatically. With very little information collected about the total harvest of mushrooms from our National Forest, the overall economic impact is hard to estimate. However, it is very likely in the millions - if not tens of million -of dollars per year.

Wild Mushrooms
Many wild mushrooms harvested on our National Forest end up at high-end restaurants in delicious meals.


Mushrooms are the fruit of a bigger organism

Did you know that when you encounter a mushroom on the forest floor it’s not just a mushroom? That’s right, mushrooms are merely the fruit of a predominantly underground organism. The majority of the organism is underground in the form of mycelium – the vegetative part of a fungus that consists of a mass of branching single-cell strands called hyphae. The mushroom itself is the fruiting body of that fungus, which allows it to disperse spores and create more mushrooms.

Did you know that the biggest organism on earth is a fungus? One specific honey mushroom fungus  ( Armillaria solidipes ) spans 2.4 miles across the Malhuer National Forests in the Blue Mountains of Oregon.

The majority of fungi in the forest take the form of underground mycelium, a vast network of single-cell strands.


Trees and plants depend on fungi

Fungi are well known for their mutualistic relationships with other species. Mutualism occurs when two or more organisms directly work together for their mutual benefit. Many forest fungi species form mutualistic relationship with other plants. The mycelium of fungus species form exterior sheaths around the roots of partner plants. Because strands of mycelium are much smaller than tree roots, the mycelium effectively extends the plant’s root system, allowing them to absorb water and nutrients more effectively.

Fungi benefit from this mutualistic relationship because it allows them to access the carbohydrates produced by the plants. Recent research suggests that these “mychorrizal relationships” are an important component of overall forest health, and that many plant species would not thrive without it.

Chanterelle mushrooms
Chanterelle mushrooms is a highly desired mushroom that is well known for its mychorrizal relationship with certain tree species.


Mushrooms are critical to decomposition

What happens to a tree when it falls over in the forest? It begins to decompose and will eventually be returned to the forest in the form of soil, but how does this happen? Fungi are a critical part of this process. Saprotrophic fungi – a group of fungi that play an important role in decomposition – colonize organic matter like dead wood by growing as a branching network of hyphae. They then decompose the material by releasing specialized enzymes that break down the decaying material, allowing them to absorb the nutrients.

Mushroom Forest Decomposition
Mushrooms play an important role in decomposition in our National Forests. Here you can see the mycelium of a fungus colonizing a decomposing log.