From The Colorado Independent's David O. Williams:

ASPEN — Public policy and political will must shift as dramatically as the winds that have whipped Colorado’s record wildfires, experts say, or the state’s residents will continue to pay a higher and higher price for forests that are dying due to global climate change.

“We know now that it’s not just dry conditions that drive fires,” said Craig Allen, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. “There’s enough data that show fires are very clearly linked to warming – warming that’s been going on throughout this region for years. Fire season’s about two months longer than it used to be in the West in the last 25 years.”

That was the startling conclusion and nearly unanimous opinion of politicians, federal officials, scientists and advocates gathered at the “Forests at Risk” symposium in Aspen earlier this week – a gathering hosted by the nonpartisan Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

The meetings came as Denver set an all-time temperature record of 105 degrees, the devastating Waldo Canyon Fire was blowing up west of Colorado Springs, the record-breaking High Park Fire continues to rage near Fort Collins, and Colorado politicians are imploring the federal government for more help.

“We are seeing larger and more intense fires throughout the country,” said Undersecretary of Agriculture Harris Sherman, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service. “Since 2000, 10 states, mainly in the West, have experienced record fires. These fires have enormous costs. Our fire suppression budget can exceed a billion dollars. Our fire preparedness budget can exceed a billion dollars.”

Sherman, speaking via video from a critical wildfire command center in Denver, noted that national forests provide water for 66 million Americans, recreation for 173 million Americans and sequester 11 percent of the carbon emitted in the United States every year.

“People think these resources are free until they’re gone, and then they realize how important they were and how costly it will be to replace,” Sherman added.

Dozens of wildfires that have raged across Colorado this drought-stricken spring and summer have taken four lives, burned down hundreds of homes and severely degraded Front Range water supplies. Just the state’s share of fighting the wildfires has already reached nearly $40 million.

“If [climate change] is a reality, and it is,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO of Denver Water, there needs to be far more political will and overall funding of forest treatment and restoration. Lochhead said Denver Water spent a combined $26 million on dredging, maintenance and cleanup after just two fires: Buffalo Creek in 1996 and Hayman in 2002.

Now the water utility is partnering with the U.S. Forest Service to spend another $33 million treating 38,000 acres of bark-beetle-ravaged forests in Front Range watersheds. But he estimates it would cost $4 billion to treat the entire 2 million acres of dead and dying trees in Denver Water’s overall watershed.

“The recent North Fork Fire started on our property under a controlled burn that was undertaken by the Colorado State Forest Service.,” Lochhead acknowledged, referring to a wildfire in Jefferson County this spring that claimed the lives of three homeowners.

“We believe that continued proactive management and the continued judicious use of controlled burns is valuable in terms of managing watersheds,” Lochhead added. “There can obviously be some changes in the protocols — hopefully we can learn some lessons from the tragedy of the North Fork Fire — but we believe active management needs to continue to occur.”

Sherman talked about an accelerated restoration strategy, especially in what’s referred to as the wildland urban interface (WUI), where national forests abut residential communities. But he also discussed thinning forests and reducing fuels near critical water and power infrastructure and recreation areas. And he added that the size and scope of restoration must grow exponentially.

“We need to move forward with landscape-scale restoration,” Sherman said. “Too often we have conservation projects where we’re working on a hundred acres here or a hundred acres there. We need to move into an entirely new and expanded scope of work.”

Sherman then referenced an ambitious million-acre restoration project in northern Arizona. That kind of thinning and controlled burning, besides being costly, clearly made some advocates in Aspen uncomfortable. And without the ongoing wildfires as a backdrop, it would have been politically impossible to even consider such aggressive forest management.

But huge stands of uniformly aging trees untouched by fire for decades (because of costly federal and state fire suppression policies) are fueling increasingly intense fires that leave landscapes so devastated that forests aren’t regenerating naturally, according to the USGS’s Allen, who has seen large swaths of his home state of New Mexico turned into barren grasslands.

“There is enough of a flat earth society that still believes there is no climate change when we are living it every day,” said Gail Schwartz, an Aspen-area Democratic state senator. “It’s very, very difficult when 80 percent of our population is on the Front Range and they are not willing to understand the relationship between water and our forests.”

Schwartz praised the efforts of Lochhead and Denver Water in educating Front Range consumers about the correlation between drought, fire and dwindling water supplies. Reservoirs become choked with fire debris and massive runoff and soil erosion from fire-scarred hillsides.

“[The Waldo Canyon Fire] unfortunately will communicate to the vast majority of Colorado that all of us are at risk if we don’t do something about our forest areas and we don’t do anything to manage those fuels and protect the public long-term,” Schwartz added.

Others questioned the wisdom of continuing to build homes in areas susceptible to high winds and intense fires.

“If we accept that the world is changing – this whole new normal [of global warming] – why don’t we accept that we have to change?” said Jack Sahl, director of environment and resource sustainability for the Southern California Edison power utility. “I think a lot of our urban and rural planning has just been goofy, and we have to find a way to rethink that.

“How many times do we have to have a flood, or how many times do you have to have a fire burn out a community or how many times do you have to have a hurricane take out a community before you say, ‘There has to be a better way?’”

Also speaking via video, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall underscored the timeliness of the Aspen symposium and the critical nature of addressing overall forest health in a warming world.

“More than ever, we need to open our eyes to our once-beautiful tourist state turning into kindling,” Udall said. “Between decades of fire suppression, the long drought, the catastrophic wildfires and insects, our forests and ecosystems are truly at risk.”

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  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • This aerial photo shows the destructive path of the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, June 28, 2012. Colorado Springs officials said Thursday that hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the raging wildfire. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti)

  • A helicopters flies over as the Waldo Canyon Fire continues to burn Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • A helicopter flies over as the Waldo Canyon Fire continues to burn Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents.(AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • A slurry bomber drops fire retardant on the Waldo Canyon Fire Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • The sun sets on the front range where the Waldo Canyon Fire continues to burn Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • Pikes Peak is shrouded in orange smoke as the Waldo Canyon Fire continues to burn Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • This aerial photo taken on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, shows burned homes in the Mountain Shadows residential area of Colorado Springs, Colo., that were destroyed by the Waldo Canyon wildfire. More than 30,000 have been displaced by the fire, including thousands who frantically packed up belongings Tuesday night after it barreled into neighborhoods in the foothills west and north of Colorado's second-largest city. (AP Photo/John Wark)

  • A helicopter flies past the charred mountainside above Queens Canyon as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Jerilee Bennett)

  • A plume of smoke rises from Ute Pass in the direction of Woodland Park as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Jerilee Bennett)

  • A helicopter heads out for a drop to battle the Waldo Canyon Fire north and west of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

  • After being grounded for hours by high winds, a helicopter takes off to battle the Waldo Canyon Fire north and west of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

  • A helicopter drops water as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

  • Helicopters fly over as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

  • A helicopter drops water as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

  • Small fires smolder in the Mountain Shadows area as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns on Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

  • Some homes are left scorched by The Waldo Canyon Fire, while others survived, in the Mountain Shadows area of Colorado Springs, Colo., Wednesday, June 27, 2012. The wildfire doubled in size overnight to about 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), and has so far forced mandatory evacuations for more than 32,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    Fire from the Waldo Canyon wildfire as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • Parkside neighborhood in Mt. Shadows. Image via <a href="https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=4167559318285&set=a.1042850282512.8779.1563250549&type=1&theater" target="_hplink">Facebook</a>.

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A plume of smoke rises behind homes on the Waldo Canyon wildfire west of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. A large number of homes were destroyed by the fire Tuesday night in subdivisions west of Colorado Springs. Authorities say it remains too dangerous for them to fully assess the damage from a destructive wildfire threatening Colorado's second-largest city. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • Homes are destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire in the Mountain Shadows area of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. A stubborn and towering wildfire jumped firefighters' perimeter lines in the hills overlooking Colorado Springs, forcing frantic mandatory evacuation notices for more than 9,000 residents. (AP Photo/The Gazette,Jerilee Bennett)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

  • Western Wild Fires

    Flames and smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire surround a home as it races down into western portions of Colorado Springs, Colo. on Tuesday, June 26, 2012 leaving a trail of destruction and burning homes and buildings in it's path. Heavily populated areas in the fire's path have been affected. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • CO Wildfire 2012

    Veiw from Garden of Gods Road

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    Fire from the Waldo Canyon wildfire as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • Western Wild Fires

    Flames of the Waldo Canyon Fire races down into western portions of Colorado Springs, Colo. on Tuesday, June 26, 201. The flames approach a residential neighborhood heading north and leaving a trail of destruction, burning homes and buildings in it's path. Heavily populated areas in the fire's path have been affected. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • Western Wild Fires

    Flames from the Waldo Canyon Fire move quickly move through the western side Colorado Springs, Colo. causing several structures and homes to burn on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. The fire made a massive run late in the day leaving a trail of destruction, and burning homes and buildings in it's path. Heavily populated areas in the fire's path have been affected. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • The Waldo Canyon Fire begins to burn homes north of Garden of the Gods Road in northwest Colorado Springs, Colo., on the fourth day of the blaze Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

  • Houses in the Mountain Shadows area of Colorado Springs, Colorado ignite due to the Waldo Canyon fire on Wednesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Jerilee Bennett)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A helicopter tries to put out fire on the Waldo Canyon wildfire as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A plume of smoke is seen over Interstate 25 as the Waldo Canyon wildfire moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A helicopter tries to put out fire on the Waldo Canyon wildfire as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    Fire from the Waldo Canyon wildfire as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    Fire from the Waldo Canyon wildfire burns as it moved into subdivisions and destroyed homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday, June 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler)

  • A plane flies through a rising plume of smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colo. on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado as of Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • A helicopter battles the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado as of Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire, Rich Brown

    Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown, right, speaks at a briefing on the Waldo Canyon wildfire in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Authorities say it remains too dangerous for them to fully assess the damage from a destructive wildfire threatening Colorado's second-largest city. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • Mitch Rowley, a firefighter with the the Colorado Springs Fire Department Task Force I unit, keeps an eye on the Waldo Canyon Fire from a northwestern neighborhood in Colorado Springs, Colo. on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado as of Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • People watch from Mesa Road as the Waldo Canyon Fire burns near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado as of Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • A helicopter and another aircraft battle the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado as of Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • A helicopter battles the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado as of Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday. (AP Photo/Bryan Oller)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A firefighting helicopter flies over burned trees as it goes to refill its bucket while fighting the Waldo Canyon wildfire west of Manitou Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    The Waldo Canyon wildfire blazes through tree tops west of Manitou Springs, Colo., Monday, June 25, 2012. The Waldo Canyon fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado on Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday, June 23, but no homes have been destroyed. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A plume of smoke rises above the Waldo Canyon wildfire west of Manitou Springs, Colo., on Monday afternoon, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least eight wildfires in Colorado on Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday, June 23, but no homes have been destroyed. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • Waldo Canyon Wildfire

    A plume of smoke rises above the Waldo Canyon fire west of Manitou Springs, Colo., on Monday, June 25, 2012. The fire, one of at least a half-dozen wildfires in Colorado on Monday, has blackened 5.3 square miles and displaced about 6,000 people since it started Saturday, June 23, but no homes have been destroyed. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

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