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Researchers looking at Front Range forest health and fire

Researchers wanted to take a look at the effects of a destructive beetle, affecting forests along the Front Range.

KUSA- For Jenny Briggs, forests are a big part of her professional life and lately, so is fire danger.

"Fire is kind of tricky," she said.

Briggs is a Research Ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. For months, she, along with Community College of Denver professor Fleur Ferro and student Marianne Blackburn, have been taking a look at the health of forests up and down the Front Range. They compared their findings to data collected back in 2009.

"Obviously, here in Colorado, when it comes to our forests, this is a great source of tourism and people love it," Blackburn said.

It's all part of an effort funded by the National Science Foundation, called Research Experience for Community College students or RECCS.

"I can see their faces light up when they go out there and see what these scientists are doing," Ferro said, "and that's exactly the kind of learning that can't happen in a classroom."

In this case, that learning turned into taking a closer look at where surface fuels for wildfires are most abundant.

"Forests are always changing," Briggs said. "There's lots of disturbances."

One of the culprits is the mountain pine beetle, which has killed millions of trees in the western U.S. and Canada. On the Front Range, they found it affected forests of Ponderosa Pine.

"I've met quite a few people who have trees on their properties that have been impacted," Blackburn said.

To get a bigger picture of what was happening, the team looked at smaller survey areas in a number of counties and based their calculations on those sample areas. They found the beetles affected trees in Larimer County the most, but their research also found some cause for hope: some seedlings growing on the forest floor, despite the odds.

"It's hopeful," Blackburn said. "I mean, obviously, not all of the seedlings that we counted over the summer are going to make it. But we do hope some of them do make it."

Researchers hope to continue mapping the forests over five year increments, to see the change over time – and whether things are getting better or worse.

(© 2015 KUSA)