Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems in the Colorado Front Range Wildland/Urban Interface: Causes and Consequences

The wildland-urban interface in the United States occupies only 9% of the conterminous surface area but contains nearly 39% of all housing units. In the Colorado Front Range, increasing residential development in these locations has been accompanied by sharp increases in the likelihood of severe disturbances such as wildfires and mountain pine beetle outbreaks. The central goal of this project is to analyze the interactions among environmental, social, and economic factors in the Colorado Front Range wildland-urban interface, and to forecast the effects of these interactions on future states of the landscape. The general objectives are to identify the mechanisms by which such interactions occur, identify whether or not the landscape can experience disturbances while maintaining its functions and controls (i.e., landscape resilience), and evaluate the implications of different environmental and growth policies on landscape and human responses. Narratives will be developed to define key components and boundaries, identify drivers of ecosystem change, and characterize social and economic conditions. Linked computer models will be developed to examine landscape response over time to changes in land cover, fire, insect outbreaks, housing density, and building/landscaping characteristics. Decision making by households and developers under different policy and economic conditions will be included in the models. This project will contribute to the development of general theories about environmental, social, and economic relationships in the context of landscape resilience. Of particular interest are circumstances under which managing for resilience is difficult to achieve because of intractable environmental, social, or economic issues.

Project results will be incorporated into scenarios that explore future landscape resilience in the Colorado Front Range, under different climate and forest management conditions. This research provides the first test of the components of an integrated modeling framework for understanding wildland-urban interface responses to changes in environmental, social, and economic factors. Forums and public reviews will be organized to both educate and receive input from stakeholders about resilience of the wildland-urban interface. The goals are to sensitize stakeholders to potential abrupt and unexpected shifts in ecosystem dynamics, achieve shared understanding of actions that can enhance or reduce resilience, and assess the social acceptability of different scenarios.

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