Does a Fire-Ravaged Forest Need Human Help to Recover?

That’s the title of this article.  It starts out with Chad Hanson walking the Rim Fire in California, so I thought there would be some interest here.  Like so many things, the answer I get from this is “it depends.”  It first depends on what the desired condition is.

Several months after the Rim Fire was extinguished, Eric Holst, a vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, penned a blog stating that “letting nature heal itself” after a high-intensity fire is likely to result in a forest dominated by shrubs for many decades.”

As if that result is inherently wrong.  Whether that is a desired outcome or not is the kind of issue that should be addressed strategically through forest planning.  It may be fine from an ecological standpoint.  If the plan determines that speedier regeneration is needed for old growth species or economic reasons, that should be debated and decided at the plan level.

Then there is the science question of whether that would really be the outcome.  That depends on the nature of the site and the fire.  Regeneration problems seem to be the exception rather than the rule in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana:

“The exception, he says, is in areas that have reburned in less than 20 years, too soon to allow for a seed crop to mature, especially on the west- and south-facing slopes that are hotter and drier.”

The key question to me then seems to be whether salvage logging in susceptible areas reduces the chance of reburns.  That is a determination that could be required at the project level by a forest plan standard (for those areas with a desired condition for rapid revegetation).

The site-specific effects of each salvage project would also need to be determined (and could provide reasons to not log despite the authority in the forest plan to do so), because …

“The scientific literature on post-salvage logging is contradictory. Some studies argue that the practice is beneficial because it churns up the ground, softening hard, water-repellant soils that sometimes form after an intense fire. Proponents also insist that the detritus left behind after logging inhibits erosion.  Critics such as Hanson say that the logging skidders decrease natural forest regeneration, kill seedlings, and compact the soil in a way that increases runoff and erosion, harming aquatic life in streams and rivers.”

Of course, maybe salvage logging is just as simple as how this reporter characterized the latest salvage efforts on the Lolo National Forest:

“The Lolo National Forest wants make the best of last year’s 160,000-acre Rice Ridge fire by logging some trees…  If they can get the chief of the Forest Service to grant an Emergency Situation Determination, the public will not be allowed to object to the project once Mayben makes her final decision.”



8 thoughts on “Does a Fire-Ravaged Forest Need Human Help to Recover?”

  1. The terrible results of intense wildfires have been seen in California. Post-fire treatments have been compared to Yosemite, where burned forests are welcomed. The A-Rock Fire, in Yosemite National Park, is the best example of continuing post-fire damage, re-burning twice, already, since 1989. Even the brush is having trouble growing there, today.

  2. “Hanson points to one cluster of 5-foot-tall pines, veritable giants compared to the seedlings that the Forest Service planted in its clearcuts after spraying herbicides to reduce competition for water, nutrients, and sunlight. Most of the Forest Service conifer seedlings that we saw when we visited a plantation earlier in the day were either dead or dying. None were more than two feet tall.”

    Foresters over here in Sweden pulled the same stupid stunt regarding science-based chemical herbicides to prepare the site for tree planting. Although, instead of brush (chaparral), they target plant they want to eliminate Björk (Birch) which is considered a weedy tree after disturbance to the landscape (fire, clearcut, etc). In the dryland southern forests previous written about here, the chaparral should be used as an advantage, but decades of scientific ignorant based on a flawed religious assumption regarding “Survival of the Fittest”, chaparral is demonized as an aggressive competitor, when in actual fact it can aid seedling establishment and provide survival of trees until mature enough to survive on their own. The problem with Forest Science is that after a wildfire, they wait too long with regards replanting. Studies have to be done, landscape assessed. Nature doesn’t work that way. Establish begins after the next rainy season when chaparral is relatively small. Seedlings need to establish immediately, rather than 2 or 3 years later when a four foot mass of bush canopy exists. Otherwise they would never get past germination. The chaparral provides a underground deep-rooted hydraological infrastructure supported by a mycorrhizal network which ensures tree survival. Take that infrastructure away and the trees struggle miserably. Generally in the form of stunted growth, as the article pointed out.

    Down in Southern California, the dryland region where any real logging hasn’t taken place in over half a century, the US Forest Service undertakes the same stupid planting schemes as the professional timber companies and they all call it science. Funny how that word gets thrown around alot. Anyway, I could never convince Tom Roberts (Wildlife Biologist – US Forest Service) of the San Jacinto Mountains region to change their strategy of stripping land (by control burn or mechanical dozing), light tilling and spraying with herbicides prior to planting, to change the tactics and yet he’s the guy who should have known better. Hence projects I was involved with where Chaparral was at least slightly thinned and for the most part left intact on local landowners properties succeeded where their project failed.

    Now throw in abnormal raint season patterns and higher temps and even biomimicry of natue won’t work anymore. But it still chaps me about the gross ignorance on the part of the credentialed who haven’t changed their understanding in decades. These asinine techniques still being labeled as “We have the Science” are going to kill this planet. Then there is the other side of the coin and this:

    Hanson stops to show me a snag that is pock-marked with hundreds of holes that had been pecked out by black-backed woodpeckers. “One black-backed woodpecker needs to eat 13,500 wood-boring beetles in order to survive,” he says. “A pair of woodpeckers supporting chicks needs 200 to 300 acres of snag forest. Without these snags we would not have the diversity of insects we have, nor the woodpeckers and other wildlife that depend on them … Snag forests are as ecologically important as old growth forests and other forest ecosystems. But there is no protection for them.”

    I’m still waiting for that report on the population explosion of Woodpeckers in all those dead 150 million trees that had nothing to do with wildfire, you know, all those bark beetle killed drought stressed trees ???

  3. This photograph in the article of Lodgepole Pine regeneration was interesting

    The mass of competing trees doesn’t look anymore promising than that matchstick forest which burned up to begin with. I mean the tree trunk diameters are pathetic. Do any studies ever consider the role animals may have played in thinning out such an overpopulation of saplings ??? You know, like megafauna or in their absence massive herds of migrating Elk, Bison, etc. Moving through and browsing and maybe stomping to death a certain percentage of these overcrowded trees ??? Has anyone considered proper management of cattle running through areas with hands on drovers personally working the animals briefly as opposed to the usual dumping of domestic animals (with no wild instincts) on land left to their own to do whatever ??? In the absence of animals, what about human hand crews thinning ??? Who ever stated that a lodgepole forest should look like nothing more than a plantation forest of matchsticks ??? I mean, shouldn’t a Lodgepole pine forest have fewer trees which eventually look more like this record lodgepole in SoCal’s San Bernardino dryland forest ???

  4. In assessing the comments of “casual” observers (such as myself, Chad, and Eric Holst, VP of the Environmental Defense Club) it might be well to consider the counsel of Secretary Wilson to Gifford Pinchot, first Chief of the Forest Service. The letter of Feb. 1, 1905 (generally thought to have been written by Pinchot), contained these words of sage advice.

    “In the management of each reserve local questions will be decided upon local grounds; ….
    and where conflicting interests must be reconciled the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run…

    These general principles an be successfully applied only when the administration of each reserve is left very largely in the hands of the local officers, under the eye of thoroughly trained and competent

    Local knowledge and control has become perhaps even more important in these times of blogs, twitter and other “outside” opinion forums. .

  5. “Local knowledge and control has become perhaps even more important in these times . . . ”

    In times past this may have made sense. Local ones with experience to an area’s unique enviromental circumstances could have prevailed over a broad brush of standards and principles set up by an out of touch entity 1000s of miles away. While there are in a sense basic fundamentals and principles to be respected, local experience within any given area should have been considered. However we now live in different times. Nature no longer behaves as it once did. Decades ago you could count on certain natural phenomena to behave and respond in certain ways year after year, decade after decade. That’s all gone and it’s changed all across the planet as forests everywhere are dying. Again, in my old area San Jacinto Mountains), new seedling emergence each Spring is non-existent (has been since 2000). All the local knowledge in the world in each unique location is now worthless.

    The very things that were so successful for me in biomimicry over industry forestry mandated practices on tree planting and establishment will no longer work today. They will work in an urban landscape environment, but that’s because you can have control over that microenvironment. Out in the wilds, forget it. In the west it’s the craziness of the rainfall patterns, the higher temperatures when it should be cold, etc. Nobody has power over that. No amount of local knowledge will reverse any of that.

  6. There are a couple of things that are missing from these comments. First is that many people did know how to do reforestation back in the day when it was popular. Now you could argue that all those techniques won’t work today because of changes in climate, but it’s hard to know that without trying them. In the 80’s there was a body of practice and science (at least in Oregon, where I worked) that if it had been continued might be helpful today. Many of those with experience growing seedlings, planting and protecting them are retired or have moved on to the Big Planting Unit in the sky.

    Second is that most interventions cost $ (except for some timber harvesting). $ are limiting. Therefore you need some kind of justification/prioritization for “why here and not there” on big fires. In most places nature will take its course anyway just due to financial considerations. So it’s not an either/or. Mostly post-fire will be left alone (except for watershed protection) either way. Hazard trees along roads will usually be removed. The’s not philosophical, it’s financial.

    • Sharon: “Now you could argue that all those techniques won’t work today because of changes in climate, but it’s hard to know that without trying them.”
      Everything I’m speaking about is from experiences in Southern California, but I can tell you the negative effects are moving north. I’ve tried some remote planting on familt and friends land in the San Diego backcountry over the past 10 years and it’s surprisingly for the most part failed, maainly because of change in climate and lack of rainfall. Most of the conversations here delve mainly into western forest massive dieoffs, but back east is seeing their share. This came out recently about 1000s of year old growth trees dropping like flies in Africa and it because of shift in weather patterns.

      So whatever was practiced and etched in stone back in the god ol’days is long gone.

  7. And there is opportunity for pre-objection public comment:

    Smoke from the Rice Ridge fire produced particulate readings in Seeley Lake above anything ever recorded in Missoula County. (

    The Lolo National Forest wants make the best of last year’s 160,000-acre Rice Ridge fire by logging some trees.

    This week, the forest released an environmental assessment proposing to log more than 5,600 acres and replant more than 16,000 acres within the burn zone around Seeley Lake.

    The document is available for public comment, and the Lolo forest will host a related open house at the Seeley Lake Chamber of Commerce at 5 p.m. on June 27.

    “Public response, along with the analysis of effects, will inform my decision on how to proceed forward with the project,” Sara Mayben, the acting forest supervisor, said in a statement.


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