Uncompahgre Plateau

The Uncompahgre Plateau is an ideal landscape to conduct broad-scale planning and ecosystem restoration and fuels treatments that will produce ecological and socioeconomic benefits.  The Plateau supports many vegetation types, including pinyon-juniper, ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, subalpine fir, aspen, Engelmann and blue spruce.  It has a long history of logging, grazing, water development, and recreational uses. The Plateau includes 550,300 acres of NFS land, 528,661 acres of BLM land, 16,398 acres of state land, and 351,987 acres of private land.  In addition there are four Congressional Designation Areas, including the “Roubideau Area,” “Tabeguache Area,” “Dominguez Escalante National Conservation Area,” and “Dominguez Canyon Wilderness.”

Photo courtesy of John Fielder

Many forest types on the Plateau have been altered by human and natural disturbances, including logging, grazing, fire exclusion, insect and disease, wildfire, drought, climate change and other agents.  Several recent studies have found that the Plateau’s forests are outside of historic patterns of structure and composition and have increased potential for high intensity wildfire and insect/disease damage. There is broad agreement that active management is needed to restore ecosystems, increasing their resiliency to future disturbances and protecting WUI areas.  These actions would also contribute to protecting or enhancing watershed health for maintenance of fresh water flows.Key findings from comprehensive assessments and current information for the Plateau include the following:

  • The lack of fire disturbance from approximately 100 years of fire suppression efforts has resulted in 71% of all forest and woodland cover types having dense canopy closures, with very little early seral conditions in any cover type on the Plateau.
  • The ponderosa pine cover type has been altered by past timber harvest, associated road construction, livestock grazing and fire suppression. Over 100 years of fire suppression have interrupted the frequent fire regime, resulting in large amounts of fuel accumulation in understories and much denser stand conditions than would have occurred historically. These stand conditions are susceptible to uncharacteristic high intensity stand replacement wildfire, as were seen in 2002 when 13,000 acres of this cover type burned in the Burn Canyon fire.
  • Current stand conditions in mixed conifer are primarily late-mid seral stages, which are ripe for fire, insect and pathogen outbreaks. There has been a drastic increase in biomass, particularly in smaller diameter classes. Species composition has shifted away from frequent, low-intensity fire-adapted species (ponderosa pine) and fire regenerated seral species (aspen) to non-fire tolerant, infrequent, high-intensity fire species (sub-alpine fire, Engelmann and blue spruce).
  • Current spruce-fir stand conditions are susceptible to outbreaks of various insects and pathogens.  Outbreaks of western spruce budworm and sub-alpine fir decline have been increasing over the past decade, causing substantially increased wildfire hazard. A majority of this cover type is late-mid to late seral stages, which set the stage for fire and insect and pathogen outbreaks.
  • Aspen in lower elevations has experienced dramatic loss due to Sudden Aspen Decline (SAD).  In lower elevations, natural succession by oak/grass/forb/shrub communities is occurring, and in upper elevations, succession to conifers, spruce and fir is occurring. There is an immediate need to restore aspen stands through harvest, mechanical or fire to stimulate aspen regeneration.
  • A comparison of conditions between 1937 and 1994 indicates that pinyon-juniper has expanded into areas formerly dominated by shrublands and grasslands, and the density of pinyon-juniper stands has increased.  These changes have decreased the amount of available forage for both wildlife and domestic livestock and have resulted in loss of Gunnison sage-grouse habitat.
  • Historically, pinyon-juniper cover type had a patchy distribution of different aged stands.  Currently, most (95%) of pinyon-juniper on the Plateau is in late seral conditions of continuous dense even-aged stands.
  • Sagebrush currently occupies less area than it did historically due to past range treatments, including spraying to eradicate sagebrush and seeding of non-native grass and forb species. Pinyon-juniper has also encroached into sagebrush stands due to fire suppression, and some areas of the Plateau have become dense stands of pinyon-juniper where sagebrush stands were historically located. Restoration will benefit the Gunnison sage-grouse (a species of special concern in Colorado and a Sensitive Species in Region 2 of the NFS.)
  • Mountain shrub cover type has been altered by past livestock grazing and fire suppression.  As a result, there is a lack of earlier seral conditions, less diversity between stands and many stands are much denser than occurred historically.  These cover types, especially those dominated by Gambel oak, are very susceptible to intense stand replacing fires, which could also carry more extensive wildlfire into higher elevation timber types.
  • This area of Colorado has one of the highest incidents of wildland fire starts in the state, with fuel conditions that are conducive to large fire incidents.  Population of the communities surrounding the Plateau is expected to double in the next 25 years, increasing the pressure on the wildland/urban interface.
  • Understory herbaceous species composition has been altered as a result of livestock grazing and rangeland projects and activities that introduced non-native plant species.  These areas are highly susceptible to invasive plant species, with cheat grass, knapweeds and thistles being of particular concern.
  • Noxious and invasive weeds on the Plateau are an increasing problem and can reduce the quality of wildlife habitat.  Noxious weed infestations on NFS and BLM land are expanding and threatening drainages.
  • Stream restoration efforts will benefit the four major watersheds of the Plateau; these four primary drainages of the Colorado River (Dolores, Gunnison, San Miguel and Uncompahgre Rivers) contain important fish habitat, including Colorado River cutthroat trout, a species that now occupies less than five percent of its historical range.

Watershed Restoration. The Uncompahgre Plateau contains four major drainages to the Colorado River: Dolores, Gunnison, San Miguel and Uncompahgre Rivers, as well as 830 miles of perennial streams and 2,500 miles of intermittent streams.  These headwater streams are extremely important in supplying water and sediment to downstream river segments.  A Comprehensive Assessment, completed by the GMUG in 2006, identified riparian and watershed values and prioritized stream segments for restoration. CFLRP support would be used to enhance water quality, water yield, reduce sedimentation, and improve riparian habitat for the Colorado River cutthroat trout, river otter and other native riparian species. Specific projects include treatments for approximately 320 acres of riparian habitat and over 30 miles of stream.  Riparian projects involve the relocation of roads and vegetation management.

This project will improve watershed conditions by improving moisture retention and reducing runoff and erosion, especially in the semi-arid pinyon-juniper woodlands, reducing the threat of major wildfires that burn entire watersheds and change soil characteristics and addressing the threat of invasive plant species that impact both upland and riparian species. There are also potential benefits associated with increasing water production, although this landscape has somewhat limited potential for increasing water yields through vegetation management.  Eliminating motorized vehicle travel routes, mitigating effects where they disrupt surface or subsurface hydrologic paths, and disconnecting them from the drainage network is also an important restoration objective.