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Wyoming’s new state forester is thinking about the future of the state’s forests

Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest campground
Jesse Varner
Flickr via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
A campground in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. Gov. Mark Gordon named Kelly Norris the new Wyoming State Forester last month. In addition to being the first female state forester, she’s planning for the future of the state’s forests amid changes in the environment and strengthening partnership with the federal and local governments.

Gov. Mark Gordon named Kelly Norris the new Wyoming State Forester last month, taking over from Bill Crapser. In addition to being the first female state forester, she’s planning for the future of the state’s forests amid environmental changes and strengthening partnerships with the federal and local governments.

Part of planning for the future is increasing the employment figures of the agency. The department is at a 20 percent vacancy rate.

“We right now have quite a bit of turnover with all of the funding and all the interest going into the forestry profession and the firefighting profession, we are finding that we have to become much more competitive in our positions,” Norris said. “And we're learning to grow within that and evolve as we work towards building our capacity internally.”

Building relationships with local and federal partners is also an integral part of the agency. This includes understanding how resources can be allocated most effectively and how they can be used to fight wildfires.

“We're going to continue to work with our wildfire community, both our volunteer base and our county base through the state side, as well as our federal partners, and the federal firefighting community and how we can work together to continue to build and sustain capacity in the wildfire community,” she said.

Norris said there are three forest plan revisions the agency will be focused on in the next five to 10 years. These include those for the Black Hills, Bridger-Teton, and the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests.

The health and state of Wyoming’s forests is one that’s changed over the years. Norris pointed to some examples.

“We had the mountain pine beetle come through; we've had different other epidemics. We're in a situation with the Western Spruce Budworm for multiple years now in certain areas of the state. And there's other areas where we're watching very closely to see if we're going to see another insect and disease outbreak,” she said. “So, with that they're primed for wildfire. They're definitely primed to have some management or treatments done for their forest health and for the diversity and the needs of those watersheds.”

Wyoming’s forests also keep the watersheds that provide water to other western states, so ensuring their health is a key aspect of forest management.

Additionally, fire suppression remains an ever-present concern. Though Wyoming’s wildfire season has been relatively quiet compared to other areas, there’s a chance they could still occur in the coming months.

“I've been told by numerous ranchers, it's the best grass they've seen in over 30 years, and it's been needed, but we're drying out,” Norris said. “We've been drying out the last week and we're continuing to dry out into the next weeks. What we are concerned about is what fall is to bring with hunters and campfires. And as we get into the fall, some of Wyoming's largest fires that we've had to manage and deal with happened in the fall. [They] didn't start until September, October, and so we're not out of the woods whatsoever.”

Fires this year include larger ones in Goshen County and the Bighorn Basin as well as multiple smaller ones caused by lightning across the state, she said.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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