Key Unprotected Lands in Colorado National Forests Provide Vital Ecosystem Services

Analysis shows these top tier areas provide $1.2 billion in value for nature and people

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Key Unprotected Lands in Colorado National Forests Provide Vital Ecosystem Services
A lone hiker stands amid the grandeur of the San Juan National Forest in southwestern Colorado. A report commissioned by Pew shows the economic benefits of high ecological value areas in Colorado’s national forests.
Cavan Images

Colorado’s snow-capped peaks, alpine forests, mountain valleys, and rivers and streams are, like similar landscapes, invaluable. But that doesn’t mean one cannot assign a dollar value to the benefits that public lands provide to nature and people.

A series of reports from the nonprofit Conservation Science Partners pinpointed key areas within the nearly 14 million acres of national forests in Colorado that have high ecological value—such as abundant biodiversity, high carbon storage, or resilience to climate change—but are currently unprotected and could be degraded by logging, road building, or other development. The Pew Charitable Trusts, which commissioned the research, then entered those parcels into a state database—the Conservation Data Explorer (CODEX), which supports environmental reviews and conservation planning—and found that conserving the top 10% of high ecological value areas (HEVAs) could secure over $1.2 billion annually in ecosystem services.

CODEX defines ecosystem services as “the benefits provided by ecosystems that contribute to making human life both possible and worth living.” Specific examples of such services include natural filtration and purification of water, wildlife habitat, soil retention, cultural and heritage values, and climate regulation, among many others.  

The U.S. Forest Service, which is responsible for stewarding the ecological, social, and economic values of all national forests, could further its mission by adopting increased protections for the HEVAs identified by Conservation Science Partners. 

The Forest Service is required to update its comprehensive land management plans for each national forest every 15 years. Given the scope of the human, ecological, and economic benefits provided by the continued healthy function of HEVAs, the Forest Service—in collaboration with Tribes and the public—should consider these areas for increased conservation when it revises the relevant plans. By prioritizing the conservation of HEVAs, the agency can help preserve the ecological sustainability and integrity of these forests for the future.

Here are some highlights from the Conservation Science Partners reports for national forests in Colorado:

Download the full report PDFs:

Located along the northern portion of Colorado’s populous Front Range corridor, the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests are popular with outdoor enthusiasts from the Denver metro area and beyond. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, outdoor recreation accounted for 2.7% of value added as a share of the state’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021, putting Colorado in the top quintile of states. The forests include significant HEVAs, including near the Poudre River west of Fort Collins and the Berthoud Pass area south of Winter Park.

 Dozens of tall, deep green conifer trees cover a hillside running down to the lake’s rocky shoreline.
Near the town of Aspen, Colorado, pine trees are reflected in Maroon Lake within the White River National Forest. The Conservation Science Partners research identifies portions of the Maroon Creek watershed as having high ecological value.
Robert Cable Getty Images

The White River National Forest, located in west-central Colorado, is an important source of drinking water for communities east and west of the Continental Divide. National Forest System lands comprise about 19% of the total land area in the western United States but contribute over 46% of the West’s surface water supply. Notable concentrations of HEVAs in this forest occur along Battlement Mesa near Rifle and along the Crystal River south of Carbondale, among other locations.

 A verdant alpine hillside includes a forest of conifer trees on a sunny day. It is overseen by a deep blue, cloud-filled sky.
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains of the Pike-San Isabel National Forests provide important wildlife habitat. New research identified much of the unprotected portion of this mountain range as possessing high ecological value.
Patrick Lienin Getty Images

Located in central and south-central Colorado, the Pike-San Isabel National Forests include portions of the South Platte and Arkansas rivers headwaters. These watersheds are home to important wildlife habitats, including those for bighorn sheep, bears, ptarmigan, and many more creatures. But these forests, like all of those throughout the state, are seeing effects from climate change, natural systems modifications (such as wildfire suppression and surface water diversion), and invasive species. This makes it increasingly important that the Forest Service conserve the Pike-San Isabel’s HEVAs—places such as the Culebra Range and Wet Mountains south and west of Pueblo and the mountain valleys west of Leadville.

Pew encourages the Forest Service, in collaboration with the public, to use the data in the Conservation Science Partners reports to guide management decisions that will conserve the health and sustainability of Colorado’s national forests—for nature and people—far into the future.

John Seebach is a director and Blake Busse is a principal associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.

These reports are a few of the 51 analyses Pew has commissioned Conservation Science Partners to undertake to determine the most important ecologically valuable, and as yet unprotected, areas within the country’s national forests. Like these forests in Colorado, the other forest analyses involve areas expected to undergo revisions in the next several years.

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