Giving Thanks for Burned Forests

photo by Matthew Koehler

Giving Thanks for Burned Forests
By Matthew Koehler

The first time I walked through this piece of the Lolo National Forest, smoke was still rising from the deep duff layer of the old-growth spruce-fir forest. It was a crisp, blue-bird October day seven years ago and I was leading a team of University of Montana students on a monitoring trip to get a first-hand lesson in fire ecology.

It was the height the Bush Administration’s effort to pass the so-called Healthy Forest Initiative and roll-back many of our nation’s landmark environmental laws, all of which seems like a long-forgotten bad dream.

The original intent of our monitoring trip on that October day in 2003 was to document fire behavior in the heavily logged and roaded lands of Plum Creek Timber Company compared to adjacent unlogged wildlands on the Lolo National Forest.

That distinction became quite clear as our team biked six miles – and 2,500 vertical feet – up the watershed and were afforded ever-expanding views of the cut-over Plum Creek land. It was quickly evident why crews fighting this fire dubbed the Plum Creek lands “the black desert.” For miles and miles all the eye could see were cut-over lands burnt to a crisp and a network of newly exposed logging roads.

The stark scene before us certainly didn’t conjure up the image of “leaders in environmental forestry,” which the timber company’s sign at the bottom of the watershed proudly proclaimed.

Exhausted, yet relieved to be beyond the reach of industrial forest management, we arrived at a remote trailhead and began walking down a trial that passed through a beautiful unlogged forest and eventually an officially designated Wilderness area. Our noses were overcome with the unique aroma of the recently burnt forest as we took in the mosaic patterns of wildfire across the landscape. A few trees torched over hereŠa light ground fire thereŠa hillside with jet-black snags from a high intensity fire directly adjacent to a ravine that was completely untouched.

These are the mysterious – even enchanting – patterns of low, moderate and high-intensity fires I have come to know and appreciate during my many subsequent trips to recently burned and recovering post-fire landscapes throughout the northern Rockies.

While it seems like some people want us to think that all modern wildfires are bad those of us who actually get out on the ground know a simple truth: our forests and wildlife evolved with fire, including “catastrophic” fire, and burnt forests are not the lifeless, unhealthy landscapes that some would like us to believe.

A few summer’s ago Dr. Richard Hutto, director of the Avian Science Center at the University of Montana, put it quite nicely when he wrote, “It’s important for the public and policymakers to recognize the important role that severely burned forests play in maintaining wildlife populations and healthy forests. Severely burned forests are neither ‘destroyed’ nor ‘lifeless.’ From my perspective as an ecologist, I have become aware of one of nature’s best-kept secrets -there are some plant and animal species that one is hard-pressed to see anywhere outside a severely burned forest.”
Indeed, at least 60 species of birds and mammals use burned forests because they provide the ideal habitat. While the logging industry might call burned forests “destroyed,” many critters call these same forests home.

So, imagine my surprise, when a few months after our monitoring trip, I received notice of the Lolo’s first “Healthy Forest” logging project. You guessed it! The plan was to cut down that same old-growth forest, which burned in such a beautiful mosaic. Apparently out of all the areas on the Lolo National Forest, logging along a popular hiking trail directly adjacent to a designed Wilderness Area was, quite literally, the top priority.

At the time, Mark Rey ¬- the former logging lobbyist who has run the Forest Service for the Bush Administration – scoffed at the notion that anyone would dare question his post-fire logging plans. In a quote I will never forget, Rey referred to these recently burned forests as “moonscapes,” telling a local paper that if we forest activists were successful “those moonscapes will stand as a monument to that idiocy.”

Well, we forest activists were successful. Our success came not from an official appeal or a lawsuit, but from good old fashioned public pressure. Once the spring snows cleared, we organized a field trip to the proposed logging site with Lolo National Forest officials and invited the public and the local media. You got the sense that as our caravan finally came to rest far up in the mountains – fifteen miles from the nearest home – that the forest supervisor knew this wasn’t an appropriate place for one of the first “healthy forest” logging projects. A few weeks later the supervisor called and told me she was canceling the timber sale.

Now-a-days, when I come back to this corner of the Lolo National Forest it’s with a rifle slung across my shoulder. Briskly walking up the same hiking trail in the cool, pre-dawn darkness – my headlight catching the steam from my quickening breath – I’m searching for elk, one of the many creatures who rely on recovering post-fire landscapes for food, shelter and security.

Seven years have passed since the wildfire burned across this landscape and as the sun slowly rises signs of a healthy, recovering ecosystem are everywhere: fir and lodgepole seedlings almost hip high; lightly charred bark of massive, fire-resident larch; the prehistoric call of the pileated woodpecker; the eerie bugle of a bull elk just over the ridge.

These are the healthy, recovering burnt forests that the logging industry lobbyists don’t want you to know about, because contained in these forests is a truth that belies their “moonscape” rhetoric.

As a childhood friend from Wisconsin and I finish quartering a cow elk, which was grazing on grasses and forbs rejuvenated by the wildfire, he turns to me and says, “These forests are pretty spectacular. They’re nothing like I would have expected listening to way some people talk so negatively about wildfire. Thanks for sharing this amazing experience with me.”

Our legs nearly buckle as we load close to 300 pounds of elk on our backs and struggle through the backcountry and eventually to the hiking trail through the old-growth spruce-fir forest, still standing as silent, yet powerful, monuments to a higher truth and the healing powers of nature.

This holiday season, as we gather with friends and family to enjoy the bountiful harvest from our garden and local farmers and count our many blessings, the menu will again include elk and morel mushroom stuffing. And once again as we go around the circle and say what we are thankful for, I’ll find myself giving thanks for wildfire and the wonders of our beautiful, burned forests.

11 thoughts on “Giving Thanks for Burned Forests”

  1. The question isn’t is “wildfire bad for the ecosystem”. Wildfire is the ecosystem, therefore how could it be bad. The question should be “if nature can heal from wildfire, than surely it can heal from logging”.

    In the last 10 years wildfire has burned 240,000 acres of the Lolo(that’s 200,000 more than the previous 50 years). That’s 12% of the forested acres. It took man 50 years to log 17%. In the last 10 years, man has logged 25,000 acres.

    I contend that wildfire has a heck of a lot “more” environmental impact than logging. We’ve all seen post fire erosion that would have made the cover of TIME magazine if a logger had caused it. Doesn’t best management procedures require logging operations not to disturb more than 15% of the mineral soil. I’m gonna guess a third of those wildfire acres were high intensity therefore disturbing much more than 15%. After the “Chippy Fire” on the Lolo, the USFS estimated that wildfire induced erosion in the 25,000 Rock Creek watershed amounted to 50,000 tons. That’s 5000 dump trucks (enough to stretch for 30 miles if lined up end to end). They estimated that road induced erosion was 800 tons.

    If we are to condemn logging sediment, then shouldn’t we also condemn much greater wildfire sediment. To do otherwise would be a double standard.

  2. Matthew- you said

    A few summer’s ago Dr. Richard Hutto, director of the Avian Science Center at the University of Montana, put it quite nicely when he wrote, “It’s important for the public and policymakers to recognize the important role that severely burned forests play in maintaining wildlife populations and healthy forests. Severely burned forests are neither ‘destroyed’ nor ‘lifeless.’ From my perspective as an ecologist, I have become aware of one of nature’s best-kept secrets -there are some plant and animal species that one is hard-pressed to see anywhere outside a severely burned forest.””

    Yes And it is equally true that fire and associated sedimentation can have negative effects on fish populations- even endangered or rare fish species. That’s why you might hear discussions among fish biologists, as I have, on the pros and cons of fuels treatments to protect streams. Here’s a photo that depicts stream damage- now imagine that to a reach where an endangered fish species lives.

    This goes back to the concept that neither individual scientist, groups of scientists within disciplines, nor groups of scientists across disciplines, speak for Nature; and that science is fundamentally about how the world does work, not how the world should work, or what our role in that should be. There is an apocryphal story about one of my colleagues (now retired) who removed all the “shoulds” from a manuscript that was supposed to have been a scientific assessment. What should happen is the purview of our social, religious, cultural and political systems, informed by empirical facts.

    So I would argue that fires can have positive effects and negative effects to various components of the physical and biological environment and to human communities. We should seek (as we do with floods) to maximize the positive and minimize the negative through dialogue and discussion about what should be done. I don’t see this as an either/or-(fire is good/fire is bad) but as a both/and situation.

    And so I would like to thank, today, at the end of the season, all the people who work in fire suppression, as well as the potentially unsung heroes of fire suppression – families who are missing their loved ones and must take up extra tasks during extended absences, and people who take up their regular work duties while they are gone. You don’t hear about families and co-workers that much- but without them fire suppression wouldn’t happen. So thank you all!

  3. Consider if you will the “schultz fire” that burned in Arizona last summer. 80 homes flooded. Flooding with every thunderstorm. Municipal water lines and roads washed out. Many millons spent by the USFS for post fire erosion control, many more millions spent by state and county.
    Now, if a logging operation would have caused this erosion, it would have made the cover of National Geographic, College’s would have issued “reports”, ecologists would be clamoring to be quoted by the AP,and Congress would pass something called-oh I don’t know- lets call it the National Forest Management Act.
    I don’t have a problem with wildfire in Wilderness. I think the public should see what greeted early explorers. That endless forest of Green outside your picture window was a product of man, not nature.

  4. Hello, Below are a few responses to Derek and Shannon’s comments above.

    Derek wrote: “I’m gonna guess a third of those wildfire acres were high intensity therefore…”

    Well Derek, I’m not sure where “guessing” is going to get us in this conversation…especially if you’re just going to guess and then try to make a case based on a guess. Also, I’m quite familiar with the Chippy Creek fire and that area. I’ve been up in that country pre-fire and also following the fire looking for morels for a few days. The fact of the matter is that the Chippy Creek fire burned through some of the most heavily logged and roaded forest lands in the entire state of Montana. And it wasn’t just Lolo National Forest land, State DNRC lands torched, as did lands managed by Plum Creek Timber Company and also the Salish-Kootenai Tribes. Also, I’m not familiar with a Rock Creek in relationship to the Chippy Creek fire, so perhaps you are confusing the Chippy Creek fire with one of the fires up Rock Creek (east, southeast of Missoula)?

    Shannon, that quote (which it appears you are attributing to me by saying “you said”) is from Dr. Richard Hutto, director of the Avian Science Center at the University of Montana (the only center of its kind in the US), one of the world’ leading experts on the effects of wildfire on birds.

    Also, below is some science, research and articles related to wildfire and impacts to native fisheries. Suffice to say, I believe that some people are over-stating any (mostly short term) negative impacts while completely ignoring (mostly long term) positive impacts.

    Fire Recharges Native Fisheries

    Wildfire and Native Fish: Issues of Forest Health and Conservation of Sensitive Species

    Immediate Effects of Fire on Aquatic Systems

  5. Matthew, I quoted you as saying “Dr. Hutto said, ” so I know that the quote was his. He may be the leading experts on the effects of wildfire on birds- but an ecosystem is more than birds. So I think that his scientific expertise is best applied to bird species and not globalized.

    Hydrologic and Erosion Responses of Burned Watersheds

    Check out the riparian photos on water and watershed resources and the two photos of Boulder Creek here.

    Forest Fire Effects on Hillslope Erosion.

    From Robichaud’s paper, it seems like the erosion potential is a function of how slowly plants grow back, how steep the slope is, and properties of the soil. Sedimentation is not so good for aquatic habitat.. at least that’s what many EIS’s say.

    I think it’s best to back up to the question of “can fire have some bad effects on things people care about, e.g., soil, fish, plants and animals, in addition to bad effects to humans and their communities? I think the answer would have to be “yes, in some cases.” The evidence you posted seems to be about the Northern Rockies and with a wetter climate, plants tend to grow back and fires perhaps tend not to be as bad. Perhaps your soils do not unravel as easily as other places.

    It’s easy for me to say that fire can have good effects and bad effects. Do you not agree that extinction of a rare species of fish (as one of your cited papers mentions) would be bad? Or do you think that extinction of one species is outweighed by the general good to other species?

  6. here’s a link to a “google doc” that is from the Chippy Creek salvage EIS(Hope it comes through-still hazy on the DOC. thing). As you can see,”wildfire induced erosion” is much much higher than “road induced erosion”.

    I do believe that by “Rock Creek” they mean Big Rock Creek. Here’s a “google earth” link to that location. It’s just north of Chippy Creek. I drove up there two years ago.,+Plains,+Sanders,+Montana&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=29.025693,56.162109&ie=UTF8&oi=georefine&cd=1&geocode=Ffdv2gIdaSwl-Q&split=0&hq=&hnear=Big+Rock+Creek&t=h&z=14

  7. Sharon, Thanks for letting me know that an ecosystem is more than birds. I’ll ponder that profound observation throughout the day. However, I’m interested in the clear inference contained in your claim. You are basically saying that Dr. Richard Hutto should just stick to birds and not express his opinions or share his observations about anything else related to wildfire or the world around him.

    OK, if you are going to hold Dr. Hutto to such a standard (after all, he’s only taught ecology and wildlife biology at U of Montana for the past 35 years) what does that say about you, me, Derek or any of the other very amateur, arm-chair scientist and observers out there?

    I strongly believe that fire is an important and essential natural process. I have never claimed that all fire impacts are “good” or that there are no “bad” impacts. However, I also understand there is a big difference between placing subjective human emotions onto natural processes compared with nature just being nature. I mean, is it “bad” when a wolf kills an elk? Is it “good” when an elk eats some forage? Is it “bad” when bark beetles kill a tree? Is it “good” when a black-backed woodpecker eats a beetle? Is it “good” when a wildfire burns at low intensity? But “bad” when a fire burned at high intensity, even within a spruce-fir forest?

    Since all of the species of the Western US evolved with wildfire in one manner or another, I’m not ready to define the natural processes on planet Earth with the very subjective human emotions of “bad” vs “good.”

  8. The “google earth link didn’t work. It sent you to Illinois somewhere. Just type in “big Rock Creek,Plains, Mt” in the fly too box on google earth. It’ll take you there.

  9. Matthew- I am not saying that we shouldn’t listen to Dr. Hutto’s observations outside of birds. I am saying that the field of science policy studies shows us that we need to be careful about claiming that someone has privileged knowledge based on science, when the topic under discussion can be framed as being about the discipline that the individual claims his or her expertise in, compared to some other framing of the issue.

    I don’t consider myself an “arm-chair” scientist- I have been in the applied forest ecology science world for 30 years, including observing the results of manipulative experiments in the real world. I consider the discussion we’re having now fraught with meaning, because we are openly discussing the intersection of empirical observations (“science”) with values.

    Certainly, each scientist can speak outside his or her area of expertise, but he or she can’t then claim the mantle of “science”.

    I think the Code of Ethics of the American Fisheries Society, Oregon Chapter got it just right..

    I recognize that my deeply held, professional convictions may conflict with the interests and convictions of others. I am obligated to be clear and honest in distinguishing between reports of results from rigorous study and my professional opinions based on observations or intuition.

    My professional opinions clearly so identified have value, but must not be put forward as fact. In addition, the temporal, spatial, and contextual limits of my facts and their confidence limits must be clearly acknowledged.

    I will distinguish between recommendations based on science and those based on policy, both to avoid confusing the public and to better separate political decisions from aquatic science.

    I think we need to be at least as disciplined about using science and claiming science as the basis for our opinions, as we are in the more humble world of administrative appeals, where we must clearly articulate the link between facts found and conclusions drawn. Or, to in academic jargon, between empirical information and normative assertions.

  10. The above follow up comments/debate seem to be missing the point Koehler is making – that burned landscapes aren’t devoid of life, and therefore aren’t valueless. If you value wildlife and similar such things it should be relatively easy to agree with this statement.

    Based on my basic understanding of ecology, fire often plays an important role in shaping ecosystem composition, structure, and function. Many of our forest ecosystems are fire adapted, including Montana’s forests. Excluding fire from a fire adapted ecosystem will result in changes. These changes may or may not be “good” or “bad.” Disturbance can be either caused by humans (logging, road building, etc) or by nonhuman influences (fires, floods, etc). Different disturbances will have different affects. From what I’ve learned, the chronic sedimentation associated with roads in wildlands poses a greater threat to aquatic life than does infrequent high levels of sediment associated with fires and logging. Therefore, it may be necessary to distinguish between logging and fires simply on the basis that logging requires the construction, or maintenance, of roads, while forest fire does not. What Koehler appears to be saying implicitly is that natural process has value in and of itself. I myself agree with this, but I acknowledge that many don’t share this view. To say that everything nature does is “good” and everything man does is “bad” is naive and value laden. This blog isn’t the correct venue for this debate.

    I agree with Sharon’s quote that “neither individual scientist, groups of scientists within disciplines, nor groups of scientists across disciplines, speak for Nature; and that science is fundamentally about how the world does work, not how the world should work, or what our role in that should be.”

    Yes, western science doesn’t speak for nature, but it can help to educate ourselves about what our role in the world is, and help us to understand what our role could potentially be. For example, while the IPCC’s report on global climate change isn’t policy prescriptive, many believe it is incredibly policy relevant.

    There’s one last point I’d like to mention. Science was created by people as an attempt to better understand the world we live in. Like industrialized humanity, it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Nature, however, has evolved (if you believe in the science of evolution) over millions of years.

    When faced with a choice between letting wildness or science manage for naturalness. I argue that nature, given its tract record, may know itself best. Not that I’m implying nature holds a collective consciousness, but simply that what has been happening for a long time has worked for a long time. Technology combined with the billions of people that use it don’t have this record. Learning to take a step back and let “nature” make more decisions could have more “value” than at first glance. Allowing fire to burn places it’s burned for thousands of years is doing just that.

    PS: If you haven’t already guessed, I’m a relatively confused and biased prone undergraduate student who knows very little about the world, and probably shouldn’t be spending his time voicing views over the internet. I probably should have worked on my Biometrics labs instead. Anyways, thanks for sharing your thankfulness, and please take my comment with a grain of salt.

    -Kip Beckwith

  11. Fire is fire. It is a long-suppressed “natural” component of western forests and much of the harm (“imagine had this stream been home to an endangered species…”) has resulted from the long suppression.

    But still, fire doesn’t care any more about human needs or fish species than -20 deg F weather cares about a stranded hunter or starving mule deer. For that reason, fire can be a good lesson in helping break the hold of anthropocentrism that still grips most environmentalists.

    Having watched carefully & enjoyed greatly the Beaverhead Forest recovery following the 2000 Mussigbrod Burn, though, I do agree with Koehler and am thankful for the changes wrought.


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