Fires Bad for “Biodiversity”?

When I returned to Book Club, I noticed this review of Botkin’s book, referred to by Guy. If you are interested, you can read Botkin’s thoughts on some of the points made in the review here.

What intrigued me was this statement by Nekola, the author of the review:

Botkin spends almost two chapters talking about how essential disturbance, particularly fire, is to the maintenance of diversity in many USA grassland and conifer forest communities. However, he then chooses to ignore the accumulating empirical evidence documenting catastrophic biodiversity losses across many taxa groups following the reintroduction of fire into reserves (e.g., [8,9]). Such works suggest that the widespread improper use of fire management represent [sic] one of the single most harmful immediate threats to biodiversity within the USA today.”

My first thought was that “he can’t be talking about forests… wouldn’t we have heard about “catastrophic biodiversity losses across many taxa groups?””. And one could assume (perhaps) that wildfires would have similar impacts to prescribed fires? The “single most harmful immediate threat to biodiversity within the USA today.” Whew! On this blog you might think it’s the few surviving lumber mills, or perhaps breaking up habitat with houses, or some people think oil and gas development may make things difficult for the sage grouse.

So my finely tuned feelers went up and I looked at the cites (8 and 9).
Swengel, A.B. (1996) Effects of fire and hay management on the abundance of prairie butterflies. Biological Conservation 76, 73–85.

Nekola, J.C. (2002) Effects of fire management on the richness and
abundance of central North American grassland land snail faunas.
Anim. Biodivers. Conserv. 25, 53–66

I was intrigued by 9 so went to look it up. Here’s the paper and below is the abstract.

Effects of fire management on the richness and abundance of central North American grassland land snail faunas.— The land snail faunas from 72 upland and lowland grassland sites from central North America were analyzed. Sixteen of these had been exposed to fire management within the last 15 years, while the remainder had not. A total of 91,074 individuals in 72 different species were observed. Richness was reduced by approximately 30% on burned sites, while abundance was reduced by 50–90%.
One–way ANOVA of all sites (using management type as the independent variable), a full 2–way ANOVA (using management and grassland type) of all sites, and a 2–way ANOVA limited to 26 sites paired according to their habitat type and geographic location, demonstrated in all cases a highly significant (up to p < 0.0005) reduction in richness and abundance on fire managed sites. Contingency table analysis of individual species demonstrated that 44% experienced a significant reduction in abundance on firemanaged sites. Only six species positively responded to fire. Comparisons of fire response to the general ecological preferences of these species demonstrated that fully 72% of turf–specialists were negatively impacted by fire, while 67% of duff–specialists demonstrated no significant response. These differences were highly significant (p = 0.0006). Thus, frequent use of fire management represents a significant threat to the health and diversity of North American grassland land snail communities. Protecting this fauna will require the preservation of site organic litter layers, which will require the increase of fire return intervals to 15+ years in conjunction with use of more diversified methods to remove woody and invasive plants.

Remember, Nekola said “single most harmful immediate threat to biodiversity within the USA today.” Not to be disrespectful, but did anyone at the journal actually review/edit/read this?

So now to the constancy thing.. if we read “catastrophic biodiversity losses across many taxa groups following the reintroduction of fire into reserves” we have to wonder what the point you are measuring the “loss” from and why. This may be a switch as Botkin points out from the idea of “climatic climax” to “what was there before Europeans was the right condition” to “what is there now is the right condition.”

For non-scientists, just remember scientists make all kinds of claims in their summaries and abstracts (and university press offices add their own spin). You often need to look for yourself for the connection between facts found and conclusions drawn (as we say in the more humble world of administrative appeals). My impression is that when I was growing up in science we were very careful about that link and that our major professors would get on our case if we were not. And I’d say that what’s in the research articles themselves tends to be more careful. It’s when the article is cited that writers claims’ become exaggerated. If claims seem too broad to be true, they are probably leaps of hype. Nowadays it is easy to check in most cases thanks to the internet.


  1. Sharon

    Re: “he then chooses to ignore the accumulating empirical evidence documenting catastrophic biodiversity losses across many taxa groups following the reintroduction of fire into reserves (e.g., [8,9]). Such works suggest that the widespread improper use of fire management represent [sic] one of the single most harmful immediate threats to biodiversity within the USA today.”

    –> I agree that this research extrapolation is nothing but attention grabbing hype totally unsubstantiated by the author’s research. I suppose that they would dispute that this is extrapolation since they do use the word “suggest” which would be as disingenuous as is the unsubstantiated statement regarding “widespread improper use of fire management”

    1) Looks like a pretty large leap from a very specific situation to a very large generalization.

    2) There is no comparison between the impact of a catastrophic wildfire and a controlled burn in a forest. However, my knowledge of grasslands is limited, so I can not say that my statement regarding forests applies to grasslands. It would have been nice if the authors had limited their statements to their area of expertise. Since they didn’t, I would say that they are guilty of malpractice.

    –> Why couldn’t the SAF set up a web page to record/report on such blatant falsehoods by gross subject area groups? It would be a first step towards fulfilling item #2 in the SAF core language.

    • Gil #1
      there are enough overstatements about research on forests; I only spotted this grassland overstatement because of the review of the Book Club book.

      #2 I think the SAF ForestEd website is about getting good information out. But in terms of reviewing papers and finding overstatements, no one funds that kind of work. And it’s so common I think that it would be hard to keep volunteers interested.

  2. i make a habit of tracking back citations and it is astonishing how bad some of them are, it is as if they never even read the thing, just a glance at the abstract or just the title. I have had people cite me and never seem to have read what I actually said. I was a co author on a comment in Science countering one of their articles in which i was cited for the method and for the life of me could not figure out what they actually did. I thought their Science article needed to be withdrawn, as did one of their other cited authors. I counted 4 bungled citations and besides that they bungled converting erosion yields per hectare to acre yields, not even backwards, flat out wrong. And this was published in Science?

    This really gave me another view of “science” as practiced although those i worked with were not like that for the most part.

    I am not a great scientist but i sure as heck do my reading and do it well, an uncommon trait.

    I found this problem especially bad in some anti salvage lit,, it really turned me against some of them.

    But I have to say the industry can be worse, and too many of them don;t seem to read much of anything at all. A close reading of some of the anti salvage lit would have revealed what I easily unearthed but they never put the work into it and I sure as heck was not handing it over to them.

    • You raise an interesting point, Greg. Many wrong things are in the literature (and I think everyone can parse out major gaps between facts found and conclusions drawn, but some of the inaccuracies require more time and knowledge.

      Bob Zyback and the ESIPRI folks were hoping that there might be some funding to pay folks to do this work of reviewing for scientific studies and reports underlying key policy decisions. However, as you point out, no one will pay for it.

      So it seems like we get in a cycle. We know that QA/QC is not adequate for policy.
      So people don’t trust it or use it.
      Here’s a link to the kind of QA/QC I think we need.

      Another issue is that (some) scientists would tell you that this level of scrutiny is not necessary as their research is “pure” and not “applied”. But the ideas that result actually do get applied, so it’s all very confusing where the line might be. Sometimes I think that efforts to fund more useful research have backfired, as now folks do the same work they always did but are more invested in claiming that it is useful. The only people who know if it’s really useful or not are in the minority on panels.

      What would I do? In terms of policy relevance, I would a separate panel to look at claims of relevance, composed of the stakeholders who are familiar with existing literature and real-world problems.

    • One of the biggest targets for the anti-salvage folks is private industry. While they are fighting against the private style of salvage logging, they tend to apply it to Federal salvage projects, too, claiming the same impacts. The Feds don’t do 80’s-era salvage anymore, and important facts are often ignored. The need to get twigs and branches on the ground, to reduce erosion, in moderate to high-intensity wildfires, is often ignored, and sometimes seen as counterproductive by eco-groups. However, they offer no alternative to that need, resulting in incidents like Flagstaff and the Colorado Front Country situations. You might be amazed at how much soil is held back by single twigs. We need to include the entire wildfires acreages (Wilderness, National Parks, etc and other special areas) into NEPA, to “get credit” for acres suitable for blackbacked woodpeckers (and other post-fire species which prefer those landscapes). We know what BBW’s need so, the “more analysis” excuse should not be a valid one, anymore, in court. If there are, indeed, so very few of them, then they shouldn’t need so many acres, which also become unusable, after just 6 years. Decisions should be weighted, with those facts in mind.

  3. I saw some astonishingly bad tractor salvage on Boise Cascade lands above Elk Creek which flows into the upper Rogue above Medford. Area burned in 2002. It was as rapacious ground logging as any I had seen in my life, tractor trails straight down the hillside, gouged out deep with the runoff from the freshly burned soil.

    To our complete surprise, there was no evidence seen of elevated sediment levels in the large stream below. More intensive sampling might have picked it up although NMFS did try to monitor that.

    What a lot of people do not get, and a simple fact not understood by most, is that most eroded sediment does not make it far unless it enters a stream channel. It mostly accumulates at the base of a hill and minor BMPs will deal with that.

    ( my phd work was on the use residual fallout Cs-137 to examine soil movement down slope since 1960 in the tropics. Delivery of eroded soil is often far less than many assume.)

    Needless to say, this Boise logging was much worse than anything allowed then on federal lands, yes, there was soil damage but sediment in the stream was not an issue here. A surprise to me.

    The only intensive sediment study on federal salvage I am familiar with was out on the Malhuer in E Oregon where BMPs were used for tractor work and it showed virtually no sediment movement down the slope.

    That said, I did not like the salvage for other complex reasons, but sediment was clearly not the issue.

    I have not seen this Malheur study which was published in a journal cited but I have heard it dismissed by people who never really read it. I hungered to make them see the light in court.

    BTW, plenty of people dismissed the Donato Biscuit study with no evidence they had read it either.
    At only a page, it seemed easy to parse and the same canards about it kept passing around like a social disease.

    I can nail both sides on many enviro issues, and the attacks on Donato were much based on pure ignorance of the study design.

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