Historical Vegetation Ecologists Duke it Out: Does It Matter?

This Tuesday, June 26, 2012 photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service shows the Fontenelle Fire burning in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, Wyo.

I saw this study a couple of days ago but didn’t have time to do it justice. However a thoughtful reader suggested it so here goes..
Here’s a link to the AP story. Below are some excerpts:

Researchers at the University of Wyoming studied historical fire patterns across millions of acres of dry Western forests. Their findings challenge the current operating protocol of the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies that today’s fires are burning hotter and more frequently than in the past.

Combing through 13,000 firsthand descriptions of forests and retracing steps covering more than 250 miles in three states, where teams of government land surveyors first set out in the mid-1800s to map the nation’s wild lands, the researchers said they found evidence forests then were much denser than previously believed.

“More highly intense fire is not occurring now than historically in dry forests,” said William Baker, who teaches fire ecology and landscape ecology in Laramie, Wyo., where he’s been doing research more than 20 years. “These forests were much more diverse and experienced a much wider mixture of fire than we thought in the past, including substantial amounts of high-severity fire.”

If he’s right, he and others say it means fuel-reduction programs aimed at removing trees and shrubs in the name of easing fire threats are creating artificial conditions that likely make dry forests less resilient.

“It means we need to rethink our management of Western dry forests,” said Baker, a member of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working group that is developing plans to help bolster northern spotted owl populations in dry forests.

Baker’s conclusions have drawn sharp criticism from other longtime researchers who believe that decades of fire suppression have led to more densely tangled forests and more intense fires, the position advanced by the Forest Service.

“I have yet to hear any knowledgeable forest or fire ecologist or forest manager say they are convinced by the main interpretations in that (Wyoming) paper,” said Thomas Swetnam, a professor of dendrochronology and director of the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research at the University of Arizona. “I doubt it will gain much traction in the scientific or management communities.”


Williams said the Wyoming studies have significant implications for wildlife that depends on post-fire habitat, such as the black-backed woodpecker, which has survived for millions of years by eating beetle larvae in burned trees.

Four conservation groups filed a petition with the U.S. Interior Department in May seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the bird in the Sierra Nevada, Oregon’s Eastern Cascades and the Black Hills of eastern Wyoming and western South Dakota.

The new studies provide the first “real, direct data'” showing that more forests burned historically, creating more post-fire forest habitat, said Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist and director of the John Muir Project who is helping lead the listing effort and suing the Forest Service to block post-fire logging in woodpecker habitat near Lake Tahoe.

“It indicates the woodpeckers had more habitat historically than they do now,'” Hanson said.

Note from Sharon: A couple of points

1. OK, so I have worked in central Oregon, the Sierra, and Colorado and Wyoming. I don’t think I would use data from one to make judgments about the other. In fact, the Blue Mountains were very different from the east side of the Cascades. Yes they all have “ponderosa pine” but to me that says more about the wondrousness and adaptability of PPine than it says about any similarity of environment. Just look at their co-trees in the overstory and the understory.

2. If climate change means more and larger fires (can’t remember if the researchers who said this also said said “more intense”) what relevance does the historical data possess? Are the authors saying that we should manage to keep fires smaller than we might expect given the climate change future, or should we manage for more acres than the fire suppression past? What is the goal for the amount of post-fire habitat (same as what, 900 AD? 1560?). Or perhaps more habitat than the past for the woodpecker is OK to woodpecker watchers, but what if that’s less habitat for everything else?

3. My favorite leap in this article is :

If he’s right, he and others say it means fuel-reduction programs aimed at removing trees and shrubs in the name of easing fire threats are creating artificial conditions that likely make dry forests less resilient.

“It means we need to rethink our management of Western dry forests,” said Baker, a member of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working group that is developing plans to help bolster northern spotted owl populations in dry forests.

Unless you assume that historical data are “what we should manage for” why would thinning make a forest “less resilient”? Is there a proposed specific mechanism for that “less resilience”? We know that trees grow more slowly and lose vigor when they are dense and droughts occur. Are they saying that if fuel treatments are deemed to be “unnatural” then we shouldn’t do them? It’s all very confusing.

Then there’s

Now, he believes thinning and post-fire salvage operations should be re-examined and emphasis placed on maintaining high-density stands in certain circumstances that would not threaten people or homes.

“We shouldn’t be managing just for low-density forests,” he said. “We should not be unhappy with — or perhaps even manage for — higher severity fires in the forests.”

Are these folks aware that most stands are (and have to be, it costs money to manage) things left alone? This goes back to Derek’s percentage of acres in treatment question.. if we are treating <5%, isn't 95% managed that way enough? Further, it is an odd world where there is plenty of bucks to go back and examine conditions two hundred years ago, but there doesn't seem to be any to answer Derek's question.

Just because high severity fires occurred in the past, doesn't seem to me that we would necessarily "manage for them" in the future, as they can have negative impacts to soils.

I guess I’m with Wally on this one..

Wallace Covington, the director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, takes no issue with the Wyoming duo’s data collection or statistical analysis but said some of Baker’s conclusions don’t follow from his data. Covington first testified before Congress in 2002 about the urgent need to thin forests to guard against catastrophic wildfires and insists it’s still necessary.

13 thoughts on “Historical Vegetation Ecologists Duke it Out: Does It Matter?”

  1. I notice no mention of the cathedral-like ponderosa forests of California, with a generous carpet of flashy bearclover, which enabled Indians to easily burn off the understory. After all, how can pines reach such HUGE sizes, with all the purported competition claimed by the study. Did such forests magically arise after catastrophic wildfires “rebalanced” landscapes?

    Of course not!

  2. The mistake made by all sides is to over-generalize. Maybe it’s best to view Baker as a much needed counterpoint to the over-simplified view put forth from so many pro-logging advocates that the prevailing historic condition of western forests was low-density and park-like. Baker’s main point is that historic conditions varied widely. Some forests were low density, some were higher density.

    We can’t view all high-density forests as needing to be “fixed” with chainsaws. High density forests are viewed by many as vastly over-represented compared to the historic norm, but this forest type (esp. with large trees) is still rare when one considers what happened to private forests (and many public forests) before 1990. Very often, the forests most “out-of-whack” are those that were previously clearcut or high-graded. The aerial photos of the FS projects I look at often appear to target the last best dense native forests. Not always, but too often, and not because these stands “need” treatment, but because the FS still “needs” commercial product. Follow the money.

    • Tree- many people have talked about open and park-like and I think it was for ponderosa pine, and it isn’t just people who “want to log.” Western forests also have mixed conifer, and spruce fir and I don’t think anyone said that they were open and park-like.

      Probably thousands of people have spent time in the western woods measuring the density of trees and it is fairly well known that this depends on the amount of water available.

      It might be helpful to know what part of the country you are talking about, and the species in terms of “last best dense native” forests.

      Also, scientific papers, in the scientific tradition I grew up in, aren’t supposed to be “counterpoints” for policy positions; they are supposed to 1) show the question they asked and how they answered it with data (or quantified assumptions, a.k.a models) 2) explain the connection between the facts found and conclusions drawn.

      And what exactly do you mean by “out of whack”?

  3. I have worked with GLO survey data to help recreate past forest conditions for nearly three decades, including several peer reviewed articles and reports, my MAIS thesis, and my PhD research. I have not looked at the methodology used by Baker, but I am pretty confident that his data do not lead to his conclusions.

    This is what happens when ecologists forget to include people in their equations.

    I’d like to read the peer reviews on this publication. I’m curious who the “peers” might be, too.

  4. Thank you Sharon for posting this because there are many perspectives to be aired on the specifics of this issue revealing, if nothing else, the lack of certitude — from indigenous historical practices and the prevailing conditions that resulted, to the complex contemporary leading-edge notions of appropriate post-fire management.

    This profound level of uncertainty around how to appropriately address the effects of catastrophic climate change should inform and humble us, not set the stage for the political struggle focused upon treating effects of problems instead of causes.

    After all, climate change is our most urgent problem to address — not wildfires — which represents but one of the myriad and predicted feedback (“climate forcings”) mechanisms of catastrophic climate change.

    This New Century of Forest Planning must “adapt” both to known unknowns, and known knowns: i.e., prioritize for minimizing carbon impacts of all management — long term and short term management impacts. This New Century must abandon past false economic rationales for failed, heavily subsidized “industries”. Subsidize an industry of aggressively tackling climate change, and an industry of restoring our water tables and water cycle.

    After all, there are known knowns: past mismanagement has proven to have played a significant role in our climate predicament. The massive timber harvests of the past decades played a huge role in the release of previously sequestered carbon accelerating this catastrophe of wildfires — and hindered the national forest capacity as a vital sink — and accelerated our descent into irreversible, catastrophic climate change.

  5. David- I don’t think cutting trees which grow back is very “significant” to our climate predicament. Below are some quotes from this government summary..http://www.carboncyclescience.gov/documents/soccr-brochure.pdf
    Here’s a link to the report.

    Forests play a critical role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
    • Approximately 50% of North America’s terrestrial sink is due to the regrowth of forests in
    the United States on former agricultural land that was last cultivated decades ago, and on
    timberland recovering from harvest.


    Options for managing land-based carbon stocks include:
    • Maintaining existing terrestrial carbon stocks in vegetation and soils and in wood products.
    • Reducing carbon loss associated with land management practices, including those of agriculture (e.g.,
    reduced tillage in expanding croplands), and forest harvest (e.g., minimizing soil disturbance).
    • Increasing terrestrial carbon sequestration through afforestation, reforestation, planting of urban
    “forests,” reduced tillage in established crop lands, and similar practices.


    What are the activities in North
    America that remove carbon dioxide
    from the atmosphere?
    Approximately 30% of North American fossil-fuel emissions are
    offset by a sink combining factors such as forest regrowth, fire
    suppression, and agricultural soil conservation.
    • The primary carbon sink in North America
    (approximately 50%) is in the forests of the United
    States and Canada,
    which are still growing
    (accumulating carbon)
    after re-colonization of
    farmland 100 or more
    years ago.
    • The suppression of forest
    fires also increases the
    accumulation of carbon in
    • The contribution of forest
    regrowth is expected to decline as the maturing forests
    grow more slowly and take up less carbon dioxide from
    the atmosphere. However, it’s far from certain how
    forests and other
    sinks will respond to
    changes in climate
    and carbon dioxide
    concentration in the
    • Wood products are
    thought to account
    for about 13% of the total North American sink. This
    sink is growing because wood products are increasing,
    both in use (e.g., furniture, house frames, etc.) and in
    • The growth of urban trees in North America produced a
    sink that accounted for approximately 1% to 3% of North
    American fossil-fuel emissions in 2003.

    I agree with you on the need for industries for effectively tackling climate change.. e.g. the firewood industry, and sequestering carbon in wood products? and for water and water cycles. In fact that is a cornerstone of the FS response and also TU’s (protect, reconnect, restore) to climate change. Here’s their report.

  6. Thanks for the link to the government brochure Sharon. I’m departing on a two week trip where there is very little cell/internet connection opportunities and will not be able to respond in full during this time. My quick search for the source documents (the actual published work upon which the brochure summary statements are based) has been unsuccessful. Any specific links you could provide to the published work would be deeply appreciated.

    I searched the list of names of contributing scientists and found a curious exemption of distinguished scientists work which concluded very different findings on these matters such as Harmon’s decades of published work. That’s what I meant about not “(setting) the stage for the political struggle”. Also noteworthy, is the apparent exclusion of massive carbon losses associated with soil disturbing activities such as clear cutting, road building, etc.

    Further, it is hard to take any government and its agencies seriously about their stated intentions to meaningfully address climate change and our national water crisis while that government has approved mountaintop removal, tarsands projects, fracking projects, covered up the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, (etc.,etc.,etc.) and refuses to even show up at international conventions meant to collaborate on an agreement about how to correct the past failures to address climate change.

    In the meantime, whatever role the TU/USFS collaboration stated goals may claim in their color brochures, lets be realistic: their activities represent little more than a sideshow distraction meant to convince the public there are good intentions to address catastrophic climate change. This collaboration between nonprofits like TU funded by corporate foundations and the USFS is not going to accomplish ANY meaningful reversal of the massive scale of our climate problem.

    Again, I regret not being able to fully respond at this time, but thank you for this tantalizing start to a most essential discussion on NCFP.

  7. I agree with those who suggest that the conclusions in this report do not necessarily draw from the findings. I do believe this report sheds valuable additional information that helps us perhaps understand a bit more about the complex nature of wildfire even long before Euros arrived on the seen. However, as with many retrospective reports, I’m still left wondering “so what”? As many have already stated on this site and elsewhere, with climate change exponentially increasing each year, we are now living in an age of uncertainty that is unprecedented in both scale and scope, and yet, managers are still required to make decisions and manage the forest. In this kind of situation, management can/should be informed by this kind of research but should not use it to direct its decisions. Instead, management must be driven by current conditions coupled with our best guess as to what conditions will improve forest resilience over time. I do not envy the task before forest managers these days!

    Having said this, and on a related but tangential issue here, I would also suggest that it may be time to re-examine the founding mission of the USFS. Is it still appropriate to include “providing a sustainable flow of timber” within the agency’s mission? Or might it be more appropriate to consider commercial timber as a bi-product of maintaining forest resilience where appropriate within a climate change paradigm only. My reasoning here is that so long as the USFS mission remains as it is, the intentions and managerial decisions will always be suspect to those pre-disposed to this perspective. Moreover, without this kind of fundamental change, the agency will likely remain “shackled” to an outdated appropriations process, tying the agency in a Gordian knot as it tries to manage for the future with a funding scheme from the past.

  8. I think the tree density issue has been over simplified and generalized in my experience. I’ve spent a fair amount of time comparing aerial photo’s from the 1930s with present day photo’s and have observed natural stand conditions in my location, west central Idaho. For the most part our mixed conifer stands (Ponderosa Pine, Douglas fir, Grand fir, and Larch) are denser than historic conditions, and have differing tree species composition. Lodgepole Pine, spruce, and subalpine fir stand types not so much, which makes sense in that they are thin barked species which are not very good at surviving underburning.

    I think the historic fire frequency of 15 to 35 in mixed conifer made for much more open stand that favored the park like conditions of large Ponderosa pine, widely spaced. But also the moister mixed conifer sites had less frequent fires that were often mixed severity fires resulted in stands that were even aged with a scattered overstory of older trees. In our forests large continuous stands of dense old growth timber was rare and amounted to maybe 7% or so of historic mixed conifer stands. Dense mixed conifer stands are much more prone to be affected by drought, bugs, and tree diseases. These dense stands are much more likely to be the ones that burn in a mixed severity fire.

    There were lots of stands in the moderately stocked ( 50% average canopy cover) to lightly stocked with large older trees. These are the stands that are much less represented today than historically.

  9. Additionally, if decades of heavy-handed salvage logging didn’t kill off the blackbacked woodpecker, what makes people think that modern salvage projects, which sets aside huge amounts of snags, will cause the bird to go extinct? If anything, it should be private lands salvage practices that should be targeted. Certainly, Hanson wants a “poster child” to stop salvage logging, regardless of how well-designed the project is. He also completely ignores the impacts of wildfires, and the inevitability of re-burns, in unsalvaged stands. My Yosemite re-burn example clearly shows how 20 years worth of wildfire snags equals 100 years of zero snags. This snag process simply isn’t “sustainable”, for those birds, especially in the Sierra Nevada.

    • Thanks for bringing arithmetic into the snag management equation, Larry. When I was in grad school I did an oral history interview with Charlie Olson, who was sharp, alert, and in his 90’s. My assistant was a wildlife biology student. We were from Oregon State University and Charlie liked to talk about the “perfessers” at OSU and their “college sense,” which he defined as “the opposite of common sense.”

      Angela and I were recording an interview with Charlie on a landing overlooking a clearcut, which had been a hayfield when he was born and raised upstream, a few miles away. Now some of the stumps approached 36-inches in diameter and probably dated back to WW I or WW II. Interspersed throughout the clearcut were a number of large diameter snags, created at some cost and risk by climbers, essentially creating several spar poles to the acre.

      “What did they do that for,” Charlie asked, “they’re only going to rot and fall over in a few years, and then they won’t have any.” Angela explained that the snags created roosting sites for predators, such as hawks, that helped to control rodents, and bug larvae colonies for woodpeckers, and flying ants for bats. Charlie looked at her almost admiringly, and then said her “speech sounded just like a perfesser.” For an instant I think she was kind of pleased because she was only a student, not even an assistant lecturer.

      Charlie bet we could come back in 25 years (when he would be about 120) and there wouldn’t be any snags left, so we bet him. That was about 22 years ago, and most of the snags were down (lucky salamanders!) the last time I was through there, about 3 or 4 years ago.

  10. Ah, but even if they hung around for 15 years, that is still more than otherwise. We vegetation folks know that something doesn’t have to be permanent to have value. What would be more interesting would be to leave some in some areas, and then not in others ,and see what happens in terms of the targeted wildlife species over that time period.
    Except that by the time we found out, we probably wouldn’t be doing those practices anyway and the climate will have changed.

    You gotta love this business…


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