NY Times: Forest fire research questions wisdom of fuel reduction

Yesterday, Jim Robbins (a Montana-based science writer for the New York Times) had a very interesting article in the paper, which featured a few of the scientists/researchers we’ve highlighted before on this blog.

Robbins was lucky enough to spend a day in the woods with Dr. Richard Hutto, professor of biology and the director of the University of Montana’s Avian Science Center.  Dr. Hutto’s research has been brought up on this blog a few times in the past.  A few years ago, Dr. Hutto put together a short video titled, “Portraits in Black,” which is a  series of images from severely burned forests to help illustrate the value of such forests to those who might not believe such value exists (such as some of the readers and commenters of this blog?).

MISSOULA, Mont. — On a forested mountainside that was charred in a wildfire in 2003, Richard Hutto, a University of Montana ornithologist, plays a recording of a black-backed woodpecker drumming on a tree.

The distinctive tattoo goes unanswered until Dr. Hutto is ready to leave. Then, at the top of a tree burned to charcoal, a woodpecker with black feathers, a white breast and a yellow slash on its crown hammers a rhythmic response.

“This forest may have burned,” says Dr. Hutto, smiling, “but that doesn’t mean it’s dead. There’s a lot going on.”

The black-backed woodpecker’s drum signals more than the return of life to the forest. It also may be an important clue toward resolving a debate about how much, and even whether, to try to prevent large forest fires.

Scientists are at loggerheads over whether there is an ecological advantage to thinning forests and using prescribed fire to reduce fuel for subsequent fires — or whether those methods actually diminish ecological processes and biodiversity….

Recent research [some ecologists and environmentalists] say shows that nature often caused far more severe fires than tree ring records show. That means the ecology of Western forests depends on fires of varying degrees of severity, including what we think of as catastrophic fires, not just the kinds of low-intensity blazes that current Forest Service policy favors.

They say that large fires, far from destroying forests, can be a shot of adrenaline that stimulates biodiversity.

Robbins also speaks with Dr. William Baker, a fire ecologist at the University of Wyoming who’s recent research we’ve also discussed quite a bit on this blog.

William Baker, a fire and landscape ecologist at the University of Wyoming, contends that the kind of limited fires that are being employed to control bigger fires were not as common in nature as has been thought.

For a recent paper in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, published with Mark Williams, Dr. Baker employed an unorthodox method to reconstruct fire history that challenges current analysis of tree rings. (The study was financed by the National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture.)

Dr. Baker and Dr. Williams examined thousands of handwritten records created by agents of the federal General Land Office who surveyed undeveloped land in the West in the mid-19th century. The surveyors used an ax to mark trees at precise intervals and took meticulous notes on what the vegetation between marked trees looked like — meadow, burned forest or mature trees.

Altogether, Dr. Baker’s students combed through 13,000 handwritten records on 28,000 marked trees, and hiked miles in Oregon, Colorado and Arizona to find some of the trees and compare today’s conditions with those from the 1800s.

They found that low-intensity fires that occurred naturally were not as widespread as other research holds, and that they did not prevent more severe fires. Dr. Baker concluded that big fires are inevitable, and argues that it is best for ecosystems — and less expensive — to put up with them.

“Our research shows that reducing fuels isn’t going to reduce severity much,” he said. “Even if you reduce fuels, you are still going to have severe fires” because of extreme weather.

The article wraps up with some pretty good thoughts about the concept of “disturbance ecology” and a nice money quote from Dr. Hutto:

Proponents of the free-fire theory say that while human lives and property should be protected, beyond that widespread wildfires should be viewed as necessary ecological events that reset the clock on a landscape to provide habitats for numerous species for years and even decades to come. This principle stems from research into “disturbance ecology.” For instance, when a hurricane blows down a large swath of forest or a volcano erupts, it strongly stimulates an ecosystem, scientists have found.

“Disturbances are very important; they are huge,” said Mark Swanson, a Washington State University ecologist who recently published a paper noting that recovered areas thrived after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. “You actually have an increase in species richness, sometimes to regionally high levels.”

Dr. Hutto, the University of Montana ornithologist, said he believes the Forest Service approach was misguided. He pointed out that morel mushrooms thrive on charred ground, and birds, including the mountain bluebird and black-backed woodpecker, then move in.

Similarly, a plant called snowbush can remain dormant in the soil for centuries until heat from a fire cracks its seed coat, and it blooms profusely.

“The first year after a fire is when the magic really happens,” Dr. Hutto said.

UPDATE (Sept 19): The most recent issue of High Country News contains a related feature article, Fire scientists fight over what Western forests should look like.

Another UPDATE (Sept 26):  Here’s an interesting comment made by Dr. Hutto on the HCN website:

Richard Hutto

Sep 19, 2012 09:02 AM

Swetnam and Brown “…questioned how ponderosa pines could regenerate if Baker and Williams are correct about severe fires having scarred Western landscapes for generations.” They regenerate the same way most wingless pine seeds do–by animal dispersal. I have numerous photos of Clark’s nutcrackers and Mexican jays extracting seeds from cones on severely burned ponderosa pines (see photo evidence on our facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/AvianScienceCenter). The more you learn about severe-fire ecology, the more it all makes sense–plant, beetle, and bird adaptations that are apparent even in many of our dry mixed-conifer forest types!

21 thoughts on “NY Times: Forest fire research questions wisdom of fuel reduction”

  1. As a kid who grew up hunting deer, fishing for steelhead, and picking blackberries in the Tillamook Burn and who listened to family stories of surviving the 1902 Yacolt Fire along the Lewis River by retreating to Speelyai (“Coyote”) Prairie, I am well aware of the resilient recovery of forestlands following a wildfire. However, I’m guessing that I’m one of the commentators here being characterized as not “believing” these lands have value. Of course they do — but I would argue that they have far more value when actively managed rather than when allowed to burn up in costly and deadly wildfires.

    I have been employing Baker’s “unorthodox” method of using public land survey records to reconstruct past forest conditions for several decades — the practice dates to the 1950s and I have learned directly from the original masters of this approach (I still have lunch with Carl Johannessen every month as one example). I also have a PhD in the study of catastrophic-scale wildfires, which used this same methodology, and have arrived at significantly different conclusions than Baker. It does seem odd that I wasn’t asked to do a peer review on his work as there are only a very small number of such researchers in the field. I’m guessing that his conclusions may not be supported by his findings, and that maybe his literature review even missed Carl’s work from the 1960s and mine from the 1980s to present.

  2. And yes, if there were endangered species living in those severely burned forests, they surely aren’t living there now! Also, the old pines, here in California, pre-date the settlement times, most definitely. Black oaks were also more dominant, due to expert American Indian burning techniques. They were able to accomplish so much because bear clover burns so very easily and chokes out the brush.

      • I don’t know what the reasons are for the listing petition. It might be lack of habitat. If so, I would advocate for providing enough habitat for them so that they don’t go extinct. Do you disagree?

        • But if the habitat is snags, I can’t (with others) see a lack of them in the Sierra Nevada. Plenty of fires plus no salvage = plenty of snags.

          • I dug up the CBD petition and quoted part of it here. I don’t know the status.

            “As discussed in this petition, the Oregon-Cascades/California (hereafter “Oregon/California”) and Black Hills populations are
            small—less than 1,000 pairs and about 400 pairs, respectively—and both are threatened by aggressive landscape-level thinning and post-fire logging, fire suppression, habitat loss and population declines since the 19th century, an utter lack of protection for suitable habitat under federal and state laws and regulations, and other factors.”

            • So I don’t know about the populations, but I do know that “aggressive landscape scale thinning and post-fire logging” is not happening in California.

              It is intriguing to think about whether if “fire suppression” were seen to be a problem then the courts would make the FS (and Calfire??) stop doing it. That would be an interesting discussion.

              “utter lack of protection of habitat” seems a bit strong, since the old planning rule had the viability, and what the new rule includes even more requirements.

              It seems to me that if the relatively small Black Hills has almost 1/2 the numbers of the Oregon-Cascades California populations, the BH “woodpeckers per acre” ratio is actually higher, as I think would be their “thinned acres to other acres” ratio.. coincidence?

              • I would bet that there were far fewer snags in pre-European times than there are right now. If you take Forest Service lands alone, I’ll bet there is plenty of habitat for “natural” populations of blackbacked woodpeckers. There never were large populations, due to the specific parameters of their habitat.

                Also, regarding “utter lack…”, in modern salvage projects, snags are left in great numbers, both inside AND outside of cutting units. Projects even allow for multiple sizes of snags be left, per acre.

                I would propose that all new salvage projects include entire wildfire acres in their analysis, to show just how much “habitat” will be left standing. Also, there are trade-offs to leaving so many trees standing. You would be amazed at how much soil a tiny twig can hold back. Getting finer twigs and branches on the barren and burnt ground can significantly reduce soil movement, as well as rill erosion from standing snags.

                I would expect the eco-community to now compare 70’s and 80’s era salvage projects with a no-salvage policy. *smirks*

                • “There never were large populations, due to the specific parameters of their habitat.”

                  In 1870, Dr. Cooper reported in his “Ornithology of California” (at p. 348):

                  “I found the bird quite numerous about Lake Tahoe, and the summits of the Sierra Nevada above six thousand feet altitude, in September, and it extends thence northward, chiefly on the east side of these and the Cascade Mountains, as I never saw it near the Lower Columbia….”

                  By the 1970s, the Black-backed Woodpecker was considered rare. Small (1974, at p. 98) described the species as an “[u]ncommon to rare resident.” These descriptions were in stark contrast to Cooper’s observations in the previous century. The Black-backed Woodpecker was the rarest bird species for which data was reported by Burnett et al. (2011 [Table 1]) in an extensive study of the northern Sierra Nevada over two years.

                  “in modern salvage projects, snags are left in great numbers, both inside AND outside of cutting units. Projects even allow for multiple sizes of snags be left, per acre”

                  Saab and Dudley (1998) followed 17 Blackbacked Woodpecker nests from 1994 to 1996 in forests of western Idaho that burned in 1992 and 1994. Nest densities were more than quadrupled in unlogged stands versus both “standard salvage” and “wildlife salvage” treatments, despite significant snag retention.

                  Hanson and North (2008) did not find Blackbacked Woodpeckers foraging in the high-intensity/logged condition despite high density of small snags—a characteristic that has been used to describe habitat in the immediate vicinity of Black-backed nest trees in the Rocky Mountains (Saab et al. 2002).

                  • John, Thank you so much for your legal and scientific contributions to this blog. The information you provide always seems timely here, and sadly, often lacking. Thanks again.

                    Regarding Larry H’s comment above, it’s sort of funny that he takes exception to words “utter lack” but then uses an equally vague term “great numbers” to support his view. I remember numerous post-fire salvage logging timber sales in Montana where it was quite clear that the largest snags were cut down in “great numbers” meanwhile many of the “wildlife trees” (marked with a “W”) were little more than Charley Brown pecker poles. Yep, not all snags or wildlife trees are created equal and I’d put forth there is much more value to wildlife when 250 year old, 4 foot diameter Doug-firs are left as snags vs. a spindly 50 year old tree.

                    • Yes, and I remember keeping 2 large snags and 3 medium snags PER ACRE, in the massive Rabbit Creek Burn, Boise NF, in 1995. Yes, it was “quite clear” that we were addressing the needs of snag lovers. Yes, please ignore the masses of snags left in modern salvage projects. Nothing to see here but a sea of dead, rotting and falling snags.

                      Regarding history, doesn’t it make sense that if Indian burning reduced tree and snag densities, there would be less habitat for blackbacked woodpeckers than today? This is exceptionally-so in the Sierra Nevada, both then and now.

                    • I also remember the Boise choosing to leave 80,000+ acres of the Rabbit Creek burn, for whatever uses the snags. Just HOW MANY acres of snags does the bird need?!?!?

                  • John, I don’t really understand how you put these pieces of information together. It sounds like leaving snags for woodpeckers doesn’t actually work in the two studies. Or maybe it’s just not optimal.

                    I also wonder about the inherent assumption that stands need to be managed to maximize the habitat- do we have to choose the prescription that gives the highest nest density to woodpeckers everywhere?

                    Also, if the problem with the species is that people have been suppressing fires, therefore low post fire habitat opportunities, then stopping a fuels reduction project of 1400 acres or whatever is not going to do much good.

                    It’s easy to take the FS to court. If you want the woodpecker back to higher levels, perhaps you need to figure out places in the Sierra where fires could be tolerated and encourage fire use there. You might even get more woodpeckers per dollar expended, especially since some cases are going to lose in court and have no value for the bird.

                    Perhaps some researcher could model the trade-offs?

                    • Sharon,

                      I took two quotes out of Larry Harrell’s post and rebutted them. Perhaps that is the source of confusion? I’ll italicize next time.

                      I took the studies to stand for the proposition that Black Backs aren’t nearly as abundant in logged areas that have significant snag retention versus unlogged areas.

                      There is no inherent assumption that stands need to be managed to maximize woodpecker habitat. I said that if they are put on the endangered species list because of a lack of habitat, “I would advocate for providing enough habitat for them so that they don’t go extinct. Do you disagree?”

                    • I don’t live or litigate in California, so I probably won’t spend my time/resources on trying to convince the Forest Service that fire is good and the agency should allow it on the landscape out that way. I think it would be futile anyways. My experience with the agency has frequently been that they are the professionals and would prefer not to be bothered by anyone outside the rank and file.

                      Let’s face it, fire fighting is big business. Over half of the agency’s budget is spent on fighting fires. What are the chances that the government is going to admit their fire management paradigm is flawed; that they need to allow larger fires on the landscape? You know how many people that would put out of work? And besides, the Forest Service has been scaring the daylights out of the public over the threat of catastrophic fires destroying homes for years. I don’t really expect the agency to now admit it was wrong, that large fires are vital to the health of ecosystems. Nor do I don’t expect the agency to validate the studies of its own fire scientists that say the WUI concept is flawed. The fire propaganda and fear mongering has been very effective so far–why would they change it up? Because I asked them to? I do that every time I comment on these fuels reduction projects.

  3. Matthew, thanks for posting this and the HCN piece. A couple of things from the HCN piece caught my eye.

    the title

    “Fire scientists fight over what Western forests should look like”

    Actually they are fighting about what they USED to look like. “Shoulds” are normative and not empirical. Science is about what is, not what “should” be. That’s defined by society. Of course, scientists may think they should decide what society should do, but let’s not encourage a future technocracy.

    and this quote:

    It’s important to tailor treatment work to local conditions, says Hutto, the Montana biologist, because the federal government is spending money thinning forests that actually have a long history of dense stands and severe fires. “If they knew severe is natural, there’s less justification for that kind of behavior,” he says. “I think it’s very important to taxpayers to be worried about whether we’re going about things in a way that’s kind of a waste.”

    No, actually, let’s try using my broken arm analogy. Breaking arms is natural, but it really says nothing about the proportion of urgent care centers, emergency rooms, and doctor’s offices needed to set today’s broken arms. To set broken arms is a societal goal, even if in pre-European times there were 10% set broken arms, that’s not our target (sorry, I don’t know about Native American medical practices).

    • We’re talking about ecosystems, not organisms, so the broken arm analogy does not work too well. An organism has an healthy ideal, whereas a healthy ecosystem is a wider range of conditions that are constantly in a state of change, responding to disturbance and other biophysical variables. Diverse species use ecosystems at different stages after disturbance. They are all good. Which native species can be considered part of a broken system? black-backed woodpecker? No.

      Maybe we don’t want a world without “broken arms.” Maybe we do need the whole system including the broken arm, the animal encounter that caused the break, the wood and fiber used to splint the arm, the bacteria that infect the wound, the plants used to relive pain and swelling, etc…

  4. Tree, there is a body of literature about the concept of “ecosystem health” and how the concept really doesn’t make any sense, because an ecosystem is an idea and not a real thing.

    There are plants, there are animals, there are soils, there is water, there are fish. We can talk about soil being in good shape based on different values, or fish species x or y (sometimes as the expense of the other). But don’t take my word for it..

    I recommend Bob Lackey’s paper here on the topic:
    Below is a quote.

    There is no universal conception of ecosystem health, thus there is considerable variation
    in the doctrine or concept being described or defined (Calow 1992, De Leo and Levin 1997).
    Karr and Chu (1999), for example, reflect a common, but not universal, position that concepts of ecosystem health and integrity, although related, are fundamentally different. They define ecosystem health as the preferred state of ecosystems modified by human activity (e.g., farm land, urban environments, airports, managed forests). In contrast, ecological integrity is defined as an unimpaired condition in which ecosystems show little or no influence from human actions. Ecosystems with a high degree of integrity are natural, pristine, and often labeled as the base line or benchmark condition. Natural ecosystems, by definition, would continue to function in essentially the same way if humans were removed (Anderson 1991).
    Others make no such distinction and may even describe ecosystem health and integrity as
    different words for the same general concept. Regier (1993), for example, concludes that
    “ . . . the notion of ecosystem integrity is rooted in certain ecological concepts
    combined with certain sets of human values”


    The concept and implementation of ecosystem health continue to be surrounded by
    controversy (Jamieson 1995, Wicklum and Davies 1995, Callicott 1995, Belaoussoff and Kevan 1998). Addressing questions of ecosystem health might appear to be a fairly scholarly, perhaps even arcane, activity, free from the policy intrigue that dominates much of the science and policy underlying environmental and natural resource management, but such is not the case. Concepts of ecosystem health are seldom afforded the luxury of dispassionate discussion because, as Wicklum and Davies (1995) observe:
    “The phrases ecosystem health and ecosystem integrity are not simply subtle semantic
    variations on the accepted connotations of the words health and integrity. Health and
    integrity are not inherent properties of ecosystems.”

    Here’s more info about Bob’s background.


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