Partnering with the Land: SMC’s Conservation Forestry Project and the Cameron Peak Fire


By Travis Newbill //

To the untrained eye, the ponderosa forests of Shambhala Mountain Center have never been anything less than pristine wonderlands. But to experts in the field of conservation forestry, these ecosystems have actually been unhealthy for many years. That’s according to SMC’s Master Planner Mac McGoldrick, who came onboard in 2017 with an eye not only for pretty landscapes, but truly healthy ecosystems — two values which can be in opposition sometimes.

When Mac first laid out the plans for Phase 1 of the SMC Forestry Project back in 2018, he got a lot of pushback from people who didn’t want to see what they regarded as precious trees cut down. While that sentiment is certainly understandable, says Mac, it amounts to a classic case of missing the forest for the trees. “Our forests had become overgrown, homogenous, and crowded,” he says, “and what happens when those circumstances are present is that tree health suffers, understory growth suffers; we start to eliminate habitat for living beings, and we are possibly impacting watershed, water flow, and water health — on our own land and downstream from us.”

The strategic thinning of pine and fir trees back in 2018 has been credited as a key factor in SMC’s resilience to the impact of the Cameron Peak Fire in 2020 — along with targeted fire mitigation work and, of course, the heroic service of the firefighters. But fire mitigation is only part of the motivation for the ongoing SMC conservation forestry project, which is happening in close partnership with National Resource Conservation Service and Fort Collins Conservation District, and is more broadly concerned with “overall forest ecosystem health.” From this perspective, a fire is not an injustice or defeat, but an honored element causing necessary disruption — not unlike mechanical removal of trees.

The principles of conservation forestry will guide the recovery efforts in the wake of the fire as well — though “recovery” may not be the right word, says Mac. “I might say something like ‘we’re going to support and contribute to renewed health on the land.’ […] We’re going to work with experts and allow them to help us understand what happens to grasslands or a stand of trees when a fire comes through; help us understand, once the fire went through, what were the characteristics? Did it destroy a stand of trees, or just scar some of them?”

The experts Mac refers to make up the BAER team (Burned Area Emergency Response), which includes representatives from a long list of partnership organizations including: USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Fort Collins Conservation District, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the High Plains Environmental Center — whose Executive Director, Jim Tolstrup, served as SMC Land Steward from 2002-2006.

This diverse and knowledgeable team will guide SMC’s approach to re-establishing the riparian area, monitoring invasive weeds, replanting certain trees and shrubs, protecting the grasslands, removing trees that are at risk of falling and injuring people or structures, and — this may come as a surprise — leaving many of the burned trees in place.

“We’re not trying to hide that there was a massive forest fire,” says Mac. “A dead tree is still organic matter, and has tons of benefit to the environment around it” — including the way its root system stabilizes the soil and protects against erosion, and thus protects water quality. And, of course, many of the beloved animals and birds find shelter in these trees as well.

While evidence of the fire will be a characteristic of the SMC land “forever,” says Mac, “it won’t always be as obviously visible as it will be for the next couple of years.” And during this initial phase of healing, two more phases of forestry work will occur as well — scheduled for 2021 and 2023/24. Similar to what was done in 2018, this will once again involve working with experts to do an entire forest inventory, and then very carefully and selectively removing some trees to allow for a more balanced situation.

“We’re committed to allowing the land to come back to health, naturally. We’re not trying to be too invasive in how we go about that work,” says Mac. It’s a science-based approach, but also a spiritual one. “From a Buddhist perspective, The 16th Karmapa wrote a meditation in which he says: ‘The world around you can go on without your interference.’ This is similar. We want to protect and secure SMC, but we’re not sticking our noses in, lording over the land, or telling it how to recover. We’re working with, and listening to the land; seeing what needs to happen and how we can support that.”

Beyond forestry work, this regenerative approach of considering ourselves a part of a larger web of life, and acting in a way that benefits the whole (“net positive”), will extend to any planning for future development projects as well. “We have forests, rocky slopes, riparian zones, tons of flora and fauna — all of those are part of what SMC is; and we have people and buildings,” Mac says. “We don’t want to separate ourselves out from that in any way. So when we make decisions about the land we want to recognize the value and impact on all these living systems.”

In future blog posts, we’ll explore the ways SMC’s work in this area fits into the ongoing work of so many groups across the West seeking to protect forests and support their return to health, and share more about the implications of regenerative planning on areas such as our energy masterplan (spoiler: we’re going off the grid, eventually), and various building projects (spoiler: staff village!), as well as how our commitment to a healthy web-of-life requires diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work to be done within the organization.

As we approach our 50th anniversary in 2021, having come through the fire, and all the rest that 2020 has brought, we’re keen on rising from the ashes in a form that best serves our community — plant, animal, human, and everyone else. It’s going to be a long journey, and we look forward to sharing it with you. Please stay tuned!

Featured image (top) courtesy of Jim Tolstrup. (L-R) Matt Marshall of Big Thompson Conservation District; Dylan Alsbach of Fort Collins Conservation District; Gretchen Reuning of Fort Collins Conservation District (and member of the SMC Land Stewardship Advisory Committee); Michael Gayner, SMC Executive Director; Mac McGoldrick, SMC Master Planner.


About the Author

Travis handles the blog & newsletter for SMC; earned an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa; plays/works/learns at the intersection of poetry, dharma, marketing, and activism.






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