Utah’s High Elevation Mortality

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This picture is located within the Cedar Breaks National Monument, where conifer mortality is quite excessive. There is really not much that can be done with this situation, other than spending lots of money to fell, pile and burn. Within the Dixie National Forest, this mortality dominates the upper elevations. Even at this altitude of over 10,000 feet, the land is very dry for 9 months, except for seasonal lightning storms. Like some of our public lands, we need a triage system to deal with such overwhelming mortality and fuels build-ups. In this example, we are too late to employ a market-based solution, which would do more non-commercial work.

I have seen this area over many years, and have watched as forests die and rot, with catastrophic wildfire being the “end game”. Anyone venture a guess at what will grow here, in the future?

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16 Comments

  1. I don’t see too much wrong with anything in that picture. You can see small trees sprouting up all over the place among the dead trees, and I’m sure if you got on the ground and looked, you’d see a lot more trees, grasses, forbes It’s just interesting to me that some people look at patches of land like the one photos and feel a need to “do” something. Fact is, “something” is being done, but since it’s not by the hand of man (except for climate change and spreading invasive species I suppose) we are supposed to oppose or be upset about what’s taking place? I just don’t get that mindset.

    Anyway, regarding your question, “Anyone venture a guess at what will grow here, in the future?”

    If you consider the future to be more than 20 years or 100 years and look at, say, 1000 years times (which for ecosystems seems to be a pretty good snap-shot) I’m quite confident that lots of things will grow in the small patch pictured as the are grows, dies, burns and evolves.

    • So, you are saying that it is no big deal if these forests burn and if there are no seed sources, that “it’s all good”!?? You’re saying that with trails, highways and parking areas nestled into patches like this aren’t a problem? Certainly, I’m not saying we need “commercial logging” here but, public safety is, indeed, a big issue in this case. However, I doubt there are many excess sawlog trees around. Once again, we need site-specific science to guide what we do, or what we don’t do in our forests away from human improvements.

    • Matt,

      Sarcasm font is off….

      I’d love to have a beer over the arguement you just presented above. I don’t disagree that there is “nothing wrong” with that picture. (Is that some sort of double-negative that is going to make you drink more coffee again?).

      I would use the same arguement to justify “hand of man” treatments (logging). I mean really….we’d provide for wildlife, woody debris requirements, etc, etc…in 20 years there will be a new thick stand of trees…what’s the problem? Why shouldn’t we responsibly use a fraction of the wood from landscapes that look like the above photo??? (Drive to Helena, or Lolo Pass, or Drummond, or……..).

      I just don’t get the mindset that would oppose the responsible use of SOME of those dead/dying trees.

      Why not support logging with followup planting of species that are likely to be more resilient to climate change? How much of the “landscape” can we (the Agency) really affect through logging anyway? What’s wrong with using a small percentage of those dead/dying trees?

      Your 1000 years times arguement reminds me of of a great George Carlin performance:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=arbpu1xKAow

  2. Matthew- I kind of like your idea of “whatever plants grow are fine”. but that would mean that “whatever animals can live there are fine” also. Even if there are not many elk or grizzlies or whatever… ?

    • Sharon, I think the fine people of Utah already did their best to rid Utah of Griz. As far as elk, that current picture likely makes for excellent elk habitat (assuming there are elk in that part of Utah) and looks like many, many areas we’ve successfully hunted in MT. In fact, I will post a picture of a 6 x 6 elk I got this year, and the surrounding forests and meadows in that part of Montana look almost identical to what Larry posted here (plus the forests/meadows contain Griz).

      See: http://ncfp.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/elk.png

      • My point was broader than this project.. valuing elk or grizzlies seems to me no different than valuing conifers or other tree cover.
        Some people like elk. Some people like trees. Some people like grizzlies. People ought to be able to manage for the species they like given financial, safety and environmental constraints and the fact that climate change means there is some risk to trying to keep the same critters and plants in the same place.

  3. “This picture is located within the Cedar Breaks National Monument, where conifer mortality is quite excessive.”

    At the risk of showing my dendrological ignorance, those look a lot like dead aspen.

    • The aspen in that area were doing much better than the conifers. Spruce and high elevation pines were the struggling conifers. Mostly it is the spruce that were dying en masse. I really don’t think that this situation is unusual, as this was the tip-top of a high ridge, and the soils seem to lack the organic matter that can soak up and store water. As you can see, the density of the trees seem to ensure that water will be the limiting factor in how long they live or how big they get.

      • JZ- My perspective is that it was an act of courage for Andy to take the risk of saying he was not sure of something. I have been wrong about on-the-ground, Legal World and other things.. I hope our wrongness will be approached gently by fellow bloggers in the interest of our mutual learning..

        As Mechtild said (currently in Benedict’s Corner):

        “The truly wise person kneels at the feet of all creatures and is not afraid to endure the mockery of others.”

      • “B” in Dendrology — not my best grade as a forestry student.

        There’s a lot of “ground” for me cover, too, about 190 million acres. I know I can’t be expert in every forest ecosystem. So I muddle through, mostly by relying upon others’ expertise. Which is great fun as I’m presented constantly with opportunities to learn.

        • Andy, Sharon..

          Was in the middle of a long response that somehow disappeared (for the better) and saw Andy had responded….

          To summarize…Andy, it was not my intent to castigate you for your comment. I figured I’d have to atone for it, however I stand by it.

          The difference between a statement and a question when one is uncertain or potentially “ignorant” is also a measure of wisdom.

          Apologize if my original response came off as unnecessarily harsh. I suspect there’s a good lesson for all of us to learn from it eh?

  4. Larry,

    I am just curious, do you know how long ago these trees died? I seem to remember lots of brown/red conifers from a visit I made to Utah back in 2003. Looking at the picture, it seems like the bark has come off of some of the trees. It is amazing how long snags can stand in dry country.

    • I’d guess that these trees died sometime around 2008. The area in the picture has extremely harsh winter weather, exposed to high winds and horizontal snow. The winter snow melts off very fast in the spring, as those high winds tend to drift the fresh snow. I looked at Google Earth and the extreme mortality didn’t show up that well.

      I posted pictures of wildfire mortality in Bryce Canyon National Park, and it is clear that natural regeneration is very poor where the pines are dead. The two areas are similar but, I didn’t see any ponderosa pine in Cedar Breaks, about 1000 feet higher. It is hard to predict what will happen in those areas of spruce mortality but, Matt is right about some trees coming up through the snags. That area also has some large dry meadow-like areas which might not carry a wildfire. The mortality density increases as you go down in elevation.

      Basically, it is probably too late for a silvicultural solution, as the only economic value is in wood chips.

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