Over many millennia, forest species have worked out a “program” to deal with natural events, including natural disasters.

The Lodgepole pine is a pioneer species; its cones open only in a fire environment.  If there is a forest fire, the lodgepole cones will open, and gazillions of them will colonize the burned area, helping to stabilize slopes and soils.  If there is no fire, they will not colonize much.  Loggers refer to the dense monocultural stands of lodgepole as “doghair” stands.  All over Yellowstone Park, after the 1988 fires, dense stands of lodgepole sprung up.  If they survive for 100 years, they will die, and fall down, and the next successional group of species will fill in the landscape; that would likely be firs and spruces.  If they catch fire before the succession, a new crop of lodgepoles will start over.

The Ponderosa pine tends to colonize lower elevations, grow fast and spread rapidly into areas which were formerly parkland.  It does not need fire to sprout new seeds.  Large ponderosas can survive grassland fires which burn the understory and leave the big guys to dominate the landscape, leading to Ponderosa savannas.  Ponderosa pines grow tall and fast in good moisture and elevation conditions (for examples, the Black Hills of Wyoming and South Dakota and the Custer National Forest in Montana), much more rapidly than higher elevation species like Douglas fir and Lodgepole pine.

Logging Lodgepole pine traditionally has involved clearcuts followed by burning the area to regenerate the trees, mimicking natural fires.  Some people thought this was such a good idea that they clearcut steep slopes, bare rock slopes and south-facing slopes, which did not regenerate.  Let’s just classify this as complete stupidity.  Don’t hire BP to manage forests.  However, clearcutting and burning can work well in yielding a good harvest and regenerating the stand, in the right conditions.  A problem: it is ugly.  But compared to huge forest fires, maybe not so ugly.  The problem is that people live 50 to 80 years.  Forest fires create burnt stick landscapes which last for 30 to 50 years.  Clearcuts of Lodgepole pine stands create landscapes of old dead trunks, old dead stumps, newer dead stumps, piles of dirt and newly sprouted seedlings which are really not pretty landscapes for decades.  If people lived to the same age as Methuselah, these transitory changes would be more acceptable.

So, in the western USA where most of the forests are owned by the public and administered by the Forest Service, clearcuts are no longer favored, logging is no longer favored, and letting the beetles kill everything to be followed by millennial fires is where we are going.  The reason that there are no sawmills to accept these beetle-killed trees is because the Forest Service, browbeaten by endless NEPA lawsuits, basically banned logging and the sawmill owners either went broke or closed the mills first.

When the next million-acre fire occurs, does anyone want to census the Saw-whet owls, the Clark’s nutcrackers, the White-breasted nuthatches and the Brown creepers, for their opinions?

The mantra of many organizations which trumpet ideology over science is that chain saws are the instruments of the Devil.  They claim names which sound like science; e.g.,  Biodiversity Associates.  Do they sleep well at night, assured that they are protecting the planet from rapacious profit-seeking logging magnates?  Well, yes I suppose they do.  Are they actually protecting biodiversity?  If watching unlogged forests die and burst into unprecedented conflagrations, incidentally contributing more CO2 into the environment than hundreds of coal-fired power plants, is their idea of promoting diversity of environments (burnt lifeless landscapes next to not lifeless landscapes = diversity?), maybe is not such a useful definition of diversity.

Hot fires scorch the soil and the subsoil, sterilizing the entire landscape.  Such hot fires kill everything which might stabilize the soil.  The 1998 Yellowstone Park fires escaped Park boundaries, sterilizing the landscape in the Howell Creek and Mountain Creek drainages on the southeast boundary of the Park; I was there.  All trees, bushes and grasses died.  Entire hillsides washed into the creeks.  The resulting erosion of tons of soil and rock into every tributary clogged the creeks and obliterated the spawning grounds of the Yellowstone Lake cutthroat trout.  This kind of fire is exacerbated by generations of fire suppression.  The results are catastrophic.  Such fires do not provide useful benefits to any species of birds, mammals, fungi, flowers, butterflies or dragonflies.

Fire is essential to forest management, but removing fuels (and using them for economic benefit) is essential as well.  Removing trees before the beetles kill them seems reasonable to me.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Does WyoFile really want to have this kind of simplistic (nicest word I could come up with) commentary chained around its neck?