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TRAIL STOKE: The Forests—And Our Favorite Running Trails—Are Burning

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One morning near the peak of summer, I got up early to run a 10-mile out-and-back to Ouzel Falls at the southern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s one of my favorite summertime runs because it’s a fairly remote trail that doesn’t attract a lot of hikers or runners and it’s an easy escape into the cooler weather and bigger vistas of the backcountry. Like many of my summer adventure runs, I was eager to relish in the fresh air, blue sky and pure joy.

But that wasn’t the case on that particular run or many other runs since then.

Although it was still dark on my way to the trail, I knew the smoke was thick by the way it clogged up my headlights as I drove out of Boulder. It was so smoky I could barely see the fox that crossed the road in front of me or the deer that were nibbling adjacent to the trailhead.

The moment I got out of my truck, it smelled like a campfire. Only this wasn’t campfire smoke, it was smoke from a wildfire. And not just one wildfire, but several. And not just in Colorado, but smoke from fires in California, Utah and Oregon, too.

Wildfire smoke was becoming an unfortunate theme of most of my trail runs for the rest of the summer and, now, deep into October. But this troubling feeling actually has nothing to do with my running at all.

My run was pretty spectacular, but the smoke was troubling. Not only because it was hard to breathe or the smell lingered in my clothes on the drive home, but because it was becoming an unfortunate theme of most of my trail runs for the rest of the summer and, now, deep into October. But this troubling feeling actually has nothing to do with my running at all.

Whether you’re a trail runner or just someone who lives in the American West, it’s easy to understand what I’m talking about. We’ve all seen disturbing images of the spooky, apocalyptic dark-orange, brown and gray skies posted on Instagram and heard horrific stories about fires burning down entire communities. And while the devastation this year has been historic, the wildfire pandemic has been a growing problem for years.

Even if you don’t live in the West, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or felt the effects of the massive smoke plumes that have gotten caught in the prevailing westerlies and, perhaps, been amazed or concerned.

We definitely should be concerned.

Yes, wildfires are a part of nature, but the larger problem has been that we, as humans, have negatively contributed to their prevalence without doing remotely enough to curb the damage.

Yes, wildfires are a part of nature, but the larger problem has been that we, as humans, have negatively contributed to their prevalence without doing remotely enough to curb the damage. Without getting into politics here—not my goal at all—science clearly points to global warming as a key factor in the massive climate changes we’ve experienced in the past half century. Millions of acres of forest have burned this year alone, not to mention homes and businesses in the communities across the West. Those are the obvious signs of our acute mishandling of the natural world, and, yet, unfortunately, without those red flags, we might just keep going down the wrong path.

Hopefully I’m preaching to the choir because, as trail runners, we’d better be intimately connected to the environment enough to want to help improve it. But if you’re not following my vibe, please don’t slay the messenger. Just read on.

As for this summer, forest fires have been burning in Colorado since July with little relief from precipitation. There was record-setting heat this summer, with 74 days over 90 degrees. But this is about climate change, not this summer’s specific drought conditions. Combined with less rain, less snow and diminished snowpack, it’s no surprise that most of the state becomes as dry as a tinderbox by late summer every year.

From my own perspective, Colorado has experienced increasingly hotter and drier summers over the past 25 years—basically since I’ve been running trails here—and yet I vividly remember when it used to rain most summer afternoons in July and August. Nearly everyday, summer showers were sandwiched between sunny mornings and clear, cool evenings. But that’s a rare occurrence in recent years. At the same time, there have not only been more fires but also larger and more destructive fires and much longer fire seasons.

As I write this about a week away from November, four out-of-control fires are raging within a stone’s throw of Rocky Mountain National Park and the route to Ouzel Falls is right in the crosshairs. The East Troublesome Fire burned right through the town of Grand Lake and right over the Continental Divide and is threatening to combine with the Cameron Peak Fire to become one of the largest wildfires in American history.

To make matters much ruinous, the terrain includes a good chunk of the estimated 830 million dead pine trees standing in Colorado forests—the aftermath of a pine-beetle infestation in the early 2000s. The beetles thrived in the warmer, drier conditions of the early 21st century and now those dead trees have been a catalyst for fires to burn wider and hotter than ever before. It only gets worse if you consider that millions of additional tons of carbon will be released into the atmosphere as the dead timber burns to the ground.

Is there one, simple solution for this mess we’re in? No, unfortunately not. This is a challenge of ultra-distance proportions, but we need to first make preservation of the environment a high priority and stop doing things to make it worse. As it stands now, it’s like we’re toeing the starting line of a 100-mile trail race barefoot without a hydration vest and absolutely no training.

Yes, we need to pay more attention to proactive forest maintenance from both a federal and statewide basis, smartly thinning out trees and reducing fire risks every year. But that requires focus and budget from federal, state, regional and local levels. And yes, we can all do more as individuals to lower our carbon footprints and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

I will continue to reduce my consumption of single-use plastics, try to bike or carpool to trailheads as much as possible, support organizations like Runners for Public Lands, Outdoor Alliance and Protect Our Winters and, perhaps most importantly, vote for candidates who earnestly work for environmental progress and against the climate deniers and industry puppets who don’t.

We need to develop a national environmental-first strategy, one in which ecological well-being and protection are put ahead of commerce, tourism and, yes, even recreation.

Because what we really need is a national commitment addressing the problem of global warming and climate change and the ability to help lead global change for the better. We need to develop a national environmental-first strategy, one in which ecological well-being and protection are put ahead of commerce, tourism and, yes, even recreation. Without the former, there’s no long-term guarantee of the latter.

Call me crazy or naïve—or perhaps compassionate and sensible—but we need to create legislation and policy that’s galvanized in a commitment to the environment first and foremost, and then follow that by creating jobs, profit-making industries and recreational opportunities from there. We’ve been doing it the wrong order for too long and there’s no more time to keep failing.

Without healthy forests (and rivers, lakes and mountains) and an earnest approach to the environment, negative personal, community and national impacts our world will continue to be felt far and wide, whether by forest fires or something else.

“The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem,” President Theodore Roosevelt said in the early 20th century. “Unless we solve that problem, it will avail us little to solve all others.

Here we are 100 years later, our forests are burning and we haven’t started to solve the problem yet.

Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner and now serves as a contributing editor.