Steamboat Springs This year, many Earth Day observances are focusing on water conservation, including here in the Routt National Forest.
The role that forests can play in meeting the challenges of climate change in sustaining abundant flows of clean water deserves our attention on Earth Day and every other day of the year.
An amazing 18 percent of the nation's water supply originates on national forest land, even though the national forests cover just 8 percent of America. Here in the Rocky Mountain region, national forests form the headwaters of the Arkansas, Cheyenne, Colorado, Platte, Rio Grande and Yellowstone rivers.
Many people don't realize that national forests in Colorado alone supply water to 143 counties in 10 states. In Colorado, national forests occupy only 22 percent of the land area but supply 68 percent of the water.
Watershed conservation and restoration efforts exemplify the importance of the health of forest headwaters to the reliability of a steady supply of clean water. And volunteers are vital to sustaining national forests as a primary source of water. In 2008, volunteers put in more than 220,000 hours on natural resources projects valued at $2.7 million in Rocky Mountain national forests.
The communities that surround national forests know better than anyone that forests act as sponges for precipitation - storing, filtering and funneling water. Scientific evidence links climate change to declining snowpacks, retreating glaciers and changing patterns of precipitation and runoff. It also is linked to insects - such as the bark beetle - that are spreading more rapidly than ever. The winter cold isn't knocking them back. They are killing more trees and threatening the ecosystem balance that enhances our water cycle.
As stewards of our national forests in the 21st century, we are working to counter the effects of climate change on our natural resources.
Twenty-two million acres of private rural land that border national forests throughout the country are predicted to sprout houses during the next 20-plus years. These homeowners will be water users in many places where the demand is already great.
The days of considering water too inexpensive for conservation are gone, thankfully. As our nation becomes more realistic about natural resources, water efficiency and conservation have become more universally accepted as desirable and necessary. In the next five years, 36 states are expected to experience water shortages.
Water is a national and regional priority for the Forest Service. We are giving precedence to water as, perhaps, the greatest value of our national forests. History will judge the conservation leaders of our age, especially those of us in the Inland West, by how well we respond to these challenges. We all bear a measure of responsibility to future generations.
Water is our lifeblood. We always will need volunteers like you to help keep our forests in sync with nature, to help streams run clean.
Mary Peterson is the forest supervisor for the Medicine Bow and Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland.