Bringing Back the Forest

By Matthews, Mark | American Forests, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Bringing Back the Forest


Matthews, Mark, American Forests


For about 60 years, Smokey Bear has warned the American public that fire is bad. But scientists say it's time to stop attributing human values to wildfire. Here are some of the interesting facts researchers have found out in the 70 years since the Forest Service began its aggressive fire control program:

Many fires do not kill trees.

Many fires kill trees we want killed.

Many fires help trees grow.

Many forests--and all their trees--are supposed to burn up every 100 to 500 years according to Mother Nature's plan. Fire can be very helpful, today's scientists say.

But what about the wildfires that singed about 356,000 acres in the mountains surrounding the Bitterroot Valley in western Montana last summer? Encouraged by hot temperatures, fed by extremely dry and heavy fuel loads, walls of flame that at times flickered 200 feet in the air ran up and down mountainsides. Across thousands of acres, fire killed all the vegetation in its path. It torched 70 houses and forced thousands to evacuate.

You'll not find anyone in western Montana who thinks those fires, which smothered the valley in thick smoke, did any good--unless you talk to Glenda Scott, who is in charge of seeing that those charred forests get the best chance to recover.

According to Scott, last summer's fires offer the U.S. Forest Service a great chance to reestablish species diversity that had already been lost in a good portion of the burn areas. It was work the agency had already planned to do manually. "The fires give us an opportunity to restore targeted species on a scale we usually don't have," she says.

Provided, of course, that the right trees get planted in the right places before too much time passes. That's where AMERICAN FORESTS' Wildfire ReLeaf program comes into play. The Bitterroot National Forest has asked for AMERICAN FORESTS' help in procuring seedlings to reestablish up to 50,000 acres of forests to their historic glory. Every dollar contributed to Wildfire ReLeaf plants a tree in a scorched forest; the Forest Service has pledged to match those donations, tree-for-tree.

"Partnerships will allow us to plant more acres," Scott says. "We can make a limited budget go farther."

NATURAL HISTORY

One has to think four-dimensionally when it comes to evaluating the extreme fire danger that lurks in many of the country's forests: individual tree species, elevation, weather, and social attitudes. No one can control the weather or alter elevation, but the Forest Service can influence social attitudes and, to some extent, manipulate tree species.

If you watched the Yellowstone National Park fires in 1988, you know that lodgepole pine is made to burn. Growing in dense thickets, it becomes vulnerable over time to attacks from insects and disease. Trees die and drop to the ground and litter accumulates on the forest floor, waiting to feed the flames. The same holds true for many of lodgepole pine's spruce and subalpine fir neighbors.

So why doesn't Yellowstone burn every summer? Because the park sits at a relatively high elevation where the air is often cool and there is moderate rainfall. But when drought and high winds come together after a lightning strike, watch out: A mountainside can burn in a day. Lodgepole forests burn hot and fast, typically every 100 to 200 years. But that's good news for the tree, since fire opens its serotinous cones to release the seeds, starting the process over again.

Because it's often difficult to build roads up mountainsides to reach lodgepole forests, and because the relatively small-diameter tree is not worth much at the mill, society seldom takes much notice of stand-replacement burns in lodgepole pine forests--unless a national park is burning.

Fire is an even less-frequent visitor to the highest elevations, where whitebark pine and subalpine larch rule. However, both fire-resistant trees depend on an occasional low-intensity fire to kill their competitors, the true firs and spruces. …

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