Thinning The Forest Saved Shambhala From Colorado's Largest Wildfire. It Offers Lessons For Other At-Risk Places
What surprises Michael Gayner the most is what didn't burn.
When the Cameron Peak Fire raged through the Shambhala Mountain Center last fall, it destroyed an art studio and more than 160 tent platforms. It charred several staff housing cabins and left the surrounding mountainsides black. But the center’s two main visitor lodges, administrative offices and its gold-crowned Great Stupa were all left standing.
“The shock of seeing the stuff that is lost gets combined with amazement,” said Gayner, Shambhala’s executive director.
The sole reason most of the Buddhist retreat center near Red Feather Lakes remained intact, he believes, lies in a section of thinned-out forest surrounding its tranquil campus. When the fire reached the area last September, it cooled right off.
Unlike most places in Colorado, the ponderosa pine trees around Shambhala are spaced far apart. A thick layer of grasses, shrubs and wildflowers blankets the ground. The landscape looks more like an open space than a forest.
It’s all by design. Foresters cleared the 118-acre area in 2018, one tree at a time, in a management style known as forest restoration. The project is part of a growing effort to restore tens of thousands of acres of Northern Colorado’s overgrown forests to conditions not seen since the late 1800s.
Local foresters say it’s vital to protect communities against megafires fueled by overgrown forests and climate change.
But time is not on their side. Due to dry conditions and hot temperatures, fires are already a constant threat. The labor and infrastructure needed to complete the work at a large scale are scarce. It’s expensive — about $2,500 an acre. And it requires cooperation from various public and private landowners.
What happened at Shambhala during the Cameron Peak Fire, Gayner and forestry experts argue, offers a lesson to other at-risk communities about what needs to happen in the coming years to prepare for large wildfires.
“It was absolutely critical to our survival,” Gayner said. “If we hadn’t done the work, all our buildings would be gone.”
Restoring the forest
In mid-2017, the staff of Shambhala was growing increasingly concerned about the threat of wildfires.
That year, blazes ravaged communities across the western United States. While Colorado’s season was tame, California alone logged over 9,000 individual fires.
So, Gayner and the center’s main project manager started looking for options to better protect the sprawling campus.
They quickly found an answer at the Fort Collins Conservation District, which, along with other local forest management agencies, had recently revamped its efforts to promote forest restoration.
The work aims to bring forests in Colorado’s mountains back to the state they were in in the mid-to-late 1800s, when natural wildfires would regularly thin out overgrown patches of trees.
Government-led wildfire suppression over the past century has thrown off that cycle and allowed forests to become too crowded, reducing their biodiversity. The result is fewer grasses, wildflowers and shrubs that help balance out the ecosystem, said Gretchen Reuning, the conservation district’s forest program director.
“Historically, ponderosa pine forests were much more open than they are now,” Reuning said. “That’s why they're really easy to walk through, because there's nothing growing on the ground. But it's kind of a food desert and a habitat desert for wildlife.”
And because the climate is becoming drier and hotter, they’re also tinderboxes for wildfires. Returning them to a more open space creates a natural buffer and gives fires less material to burn, Reuning said.
When restoring a section of forest, managers first do what they call “forensic forestry.” They search for old stumps, logs and other clues to what the landscape may have looked like more than 100 years ago.
After studying an area, project managers mark a series of living trees they believe mimic the area's historic conditions and will help the forest thrive in the future. They use blue paint splotches to identify the keepers.
The rest are cut down with industrial saws and carted off the land — to later be sold as firewood.
The process differs from other forest management techniques that solely focus on mechanically thinning out overgrown forests with saws or prescribed burns. Scientists give each acre they restore detailed consideration, which research shows sets the ecosystem up for long-term health.
“We’re not just turning back the clock,” Reuning said. “We’re making it into a functional ecosystem where it can function under all of the different threats that forests are facing right now, like climate change and more extreme wildfire conditions and pests.”
Since 2016, the local conservation district has restored 2,500 acres of forest in Northern Colorado.
When the conservation district proposed restoring 118 acres of land at Shambhala in 2018, some members of the community pushed back on the idea, Gayner said.
They worried that cutting down and killing trees would ruin the remote mountain campus’ appearance.
But Gayner considered the wildfire risks to Shambhala, which had already experienced a close call with the 2012 High Park Fire. He also learned more about forest restoration and saw examples of what the land would look like several years after completion.
In the end, he decided to move forward with the project.
“There is no alternative to this work,” Gayner said. “The alternative is don't do anything and see it all burn. You're simply going to lose the forest in a cataclysmic manner rather than being able to nurture resilient forests that can, you know, meet the emergent challenges.”
It turned out a challenge would come sooner than he expected.
Put to the test
By the time Cory Carlson arrived in Colorado in early September 2020, the Cameron Peak Fire had been burning for more than two weeks.
Carlson had worked on many wildfires as an Arizona-based fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service. But Cameron Peak proved to be a challenge.
Since starting the month before, the fire had ballooned in size to over 100,000 acres. Thousands had evacuated from their homes around Red Feather Lakes, including visitors and staff at Shambhala.
One of the first things Carlson always did when arriving on a new assignment was learn all the local places that had recently had forest fuel treatments done.
In Northern Colorado, one of the spots that jumped out was Shambhala's forest restoration project.
The Cameron Peak Fire was still burning several miles west of the campus at the time, which gave Carlson and his team time to prepare.
“We were able to put on-the-ground firefighters there with equipment, engines and they’re able to set up structure protection,” Carlson said. “We had people in there the entire time while the fire was coming because it was safe to do so.”
When the fire eventually reached Shambhala’s campus on Sept. 26, the team was ready.
Yellow and orange flames raced through the forest, devouring visitor tents and other structures on the overgrown southwest side of campus. But once it moved farther east, the front hit the restored forest. It slowed down. There was less fuel to burn.
“With the fuel treatment and the firefighters on the ground, we were able to pick the fire up there,” Carlson said. “It was hugely successful.”
Reviews of the fire response show other treated areas of the forest helped contain the fire as well. The 5,500-acre Dadd Bennet prescribed burn done in the early 2000s helped moderate fire activity, according to a report published by the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute.
“Although the burn was 20 years old, an open canopy and reduced surface fuel moderated fire behavior,” the report said.
Looking back, Carlson wouldn’t have even ordered his team to set up camp on Shambhala’s campus if there hadn’t been restoration work done, he said.
“Cameron Peak always looked scary,” he said. “We would have never put people in places like Shambhala had there not been some sort of work done there.”
After the fire slowed down, firefighters “mopped up” the smoldering campus.
They sprayed hot spots with water. They cut down dead trees. Less than a day later, the team packed up their engines and moved out to try to protect another site nearby.
At least at Shambhala, the fire was contained.
Assessing the damage
When Gayner returned to the campus several days after firefighters left, he was met with a mixture of shock and surprise.
The ground surrounding the center’s iconic Stupa was charred black. More than 160 tent platforms, where visitors camped out under the stars, had turned to ash. An art studio containing over 1,000 handmade sculptures and tapestries was completely gone.
But the main portion of campus was completely intact.
Shambhala’s administrative offices. The two main lodges for guest housing. A kitchen and cafeteria. The sacred studies building. They had all survived.
In the following months, staff discovered the center’s water system had also failed. Erratic fall weather froze some of their main pipes, causing them to burst.
In all, Gayner estimates Shambhala sustained more than $2 million in infrastructure damage last fall.
But the community rallied around the fact that not all was lost. They held fundraisers and pledged to return to campus when the time was right.
In late June of this year, the center reopened to the public. This past weekend, it hosted its first meditation retreat in over a year.
Gayner is still deciding which structures to rebuild. Because of high material costs and labor shortages, he plans to wait several months before making any big decisions.
He credits the forest restoration work as the reason for even being able to think about recovery efforts.
“(Without it) the land would be baked and barren,” he said. “And there’s no question about that.”
More work to be done
This summer, Fort Collins Conservation District crews returned to the forest surrounding Shambhala to complete another round of restoration work. The 46-acre site is located at the top of a steep mountain road on the southeast side of campus.
Hundreds of logs are piled up, ready to be carted out. Ponderosa pine stumps sit freshly cut. The smell of wood lingers in the air.
It’s just one small part of the growing push to restore Northern Colorado’s forests.
The conservation district hopes 2021 is its most productive year yet. Fresh federal and state funding has boosted its capacity.
Reuning says she hopes to get 1,000 acres of forest restored in the coming months.
But challenges remain. Like many industries, there’s a labor shortage. Contractors are hard to come by.
Some landowners are still resistant to the idea of clearing the forest on their property. She feels there’s still a lot of public education to be done.
Peak wildfire season is also underway in the state.
“I don’t think there’s enough speed in the world to get this stuff done,” Reuning said. “We need a lot more resources.”
The impact of her work at Shambhala gives Reuning hope, though, that progress is taking place. Despite the destruction, she takes pride in the fact that most of the campus and forest are still standing strong.