Lodgepole Pine Ecology, 1899-2013


The following discussion — catalyzed by an article by our own Bob Berwyn that I believe has been posted and considered here before — features an email exchange on lodgepole pine ecology by a forestry magazine editor and publisher (Jim Petersen, Evergreen Magazine), two foresters (Ray Haupt and Ed Kupillis), three forest scientists (John Menke, Tom Bonnicksen, and John Leiberg) and myself.  It is pretty long, but I think makes several excellent points and provides some good references for those willing to wade through it – or at least skim through to the “good” parts.

I would like to draw particular attention to the eyewitness observations of Leiberg (1863 – 1913), made in southwest Oregon in 1899, and to the references provided by Petersen and Bonnicksen. The original Subject title of “bullshit” indicates the bias (mostly related to Global Warming) that initiated the discussion, and has been changed here to more accurately depict the principal topic at hand. Permission has been gained from the participants for this broader consideration of their thoughts, which is the main reason I have made little effort to shorten or paraphrase their written words. I can forward Bonnicksen’s attachments to anyone interested.

From: Julia Petersen

Sent: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 8:19 PM

To: Jim Petersen

Subject: bullshit


By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — While many forest managers and politicians are still broad-brushing the wildfire danger associated with beetle-killed forests, a new report once again suggests that the fire hazard linked with beetle-kill has been overstated.

After reviewing some of the latest research, the authors of the paper concluded that, “To date, the majority of studies have found no increase in fire occurrence, extent, or severity following outbreaks of spruce beetle … and mountain pine beetle … in Colorado, Wyoming, and other areas.”

Instead, there’s more and more evidence that climate — specifically global warming — is the main factor.

“The main message is that, if we want to understand fire dynamics, we need to understand the ultimate cause and effect,” said CSU professor Barry Noon, one of the coauthors. “The real drivers are drought conditions, temperatures and precipitation. That highlights the human factor in the equation,” Noon said, referring to global warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions. “That may make us uncomfortable, but the evidence just keeps accumulating all the time,” he said.

“The studies pretty clearly show that fires and bark beetles linked to the same thing; drought, warming and climate change,” said coauthor Scott Black, of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

“We’ve looked at studies from fire experts, geographers … there is no evidence to show that there are more fires when the trees are dead,” Black said. “It’s really all about the climate. If you have drought, the trees are stressed and you have larger bark beetle outbreaks.”

The paper is partly framed in the context of the persistent pressure “to do something” about bark beetle outbreaks, as land managers and politicians push for more funding to do landscape-level mechanical treatments.

Nobody disputes the need to try and reduce potential wildfire damage right around homes and other developments, but there is still a debate about whether large-scale treatments could help reduce the chance for catastrophic crown fires.

But the BioOne paper concludes that active crown fires happen when forests are dry, and not by variations in stand structure like those resulting from beetle infestations. Thinning may help prevent small outbreaks, but probably won’t reduce susceptibility to large, landscape-scale epidemics.

There just aren’t any studies out there showing that there are more wildfires in beetle-killed forests, Black said.

“I think what’s important about this is, I really understand how you get this visceral reaction when the trees turn brown. That’s been the situation the past decade. We want to take action, but that action is not as easy or as clear as one might think. Because climate is driving bark beetle and fires, logging may not get us anywhere.”

From: Jim Petersen

Sent: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 11:48 PM

To: Tom Bonnicksen

Subject: Fw: bullshit

Care to weigh in?

From: Tom Bonnicksen

Sent: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 12:48 PM

To: Jim Petersen

Cc: John Menke

Subject: Re: bullshit

Jim: It seems unlikely that their conclusion would stand up to scrutiny.  It all depends on the choice of samples, the methods, and, most importantly, the question asked.  The agenda is obvious.

One thing we know for certain is that fires can’t burn without fuel (i.e. biomass).  Everything else simply adds to the fire’s heat and intensity.  All else constant, drier and more fibrous fuel (i.e. surface area) means a bigger fire.  That said, if the forest has been dead long enough to allow most of the needles, leaves, and small branches to fall, and have time to form a thick litter layer on the ground, the fire could be less intense because all that is left are tree trunks.  It is about the condition of the forest at the time of the fire.

In short, how long after the forest died did the forest burn?

John and I should look at this research as if we were referees.  That should include anyone else John thinks could help.

Then we can comment.

John, do you agree?

On Jan 30, 2013, at 6:32 PM, Jim Petersen wrote:

Would appreciate it if you two could answer this nonsense, assuming you have the time.

As I see it, we have 6 underlying causes of today’s wildfires

1. Purposeful exclusion of fire by a society that long ago decided it did not want its forests and communities destroyed by fire.

2. Logging slash back in the days when utilization standards were very low and nothing was piled and burned. Think Wisconsin in the late 1880s

3. Lightning caused fires

4. Man caused fires

5. Failure to reduce stand density where it would help reduce the risk of insect and disease infestation, and inevitable wildfire – a political decision.

6. Indian fire, used for eons by Indians as a management tool; various objectives

Frankly, I don’t see global warming as a cause. Drought certainly contributes to forest health, and dead and dying trees certainly attract insects. It would be interesting to compare long-term climate trends (Tree Ring Research, University of Arizona) with the incidence and severity of wildfire.

From: John Menke

Sent: Thursday, January 31, 2013 8:50 AM

To: Jim Petersen

Cc: Tom Bonnicksen

Subject: Re: bullshit

Jim: I will look into it more.  I did do a Scholar Google on Noon and found very few senior authored papers several of which have thoughtful titles but appeared to have little content.  What we call normative science these days.  Tom — Phil Omi was at CSU for a career but I never was impressed with much of his work.  He was near Noon for years and should know much about lodgepole — Ray Haupt tells me it has a very long fire return interval.  That would tell me that eventually drought with decadent stands would likely burn it up due to spread from lowland fire starts along roadways with their frequent ignitions.  The human population of the Rockies has gone wild — in 1970 the population of Fort Collins was 45,000 — when I went to my professors retirement party in 2002 the city had 6 Starbucks and was continuous metropolitan from Fort Collins to Denver.  I think there is a concerted effort to not allow forestry management with logging to get started again — that is the purpose of these papers.  Eventually that must happen and it could be a real boom again given all the standing volume.  When and if the economy ever gets going again, the time could come.  Likely not in our lifetimes however.

All your points Jim are valid.

British Columbia certainly all burned up after beetle attack.  That was a landscape level event or set of events.

I am adding Ray Haupt and Bob Zybach to our assessment team if they would like to weigh in.

I will now read the whole Noon paper.

On Feb 1, 2013, at 8:10 AM, Ray Haupt wrote:

A little clarification.

I think you may have misunderstood me or I didn’t say it very well. Lodge Pole Pine is a Pioneer species and as such is a prolific seeder and has a rather short life expediency. About 150 years tops. Where it perpetuates around here and the Sierra are in the higher elevations where fire return intervals are typically 40+ years and it can rapidly colonize the high elevation juvenile sterile soils. It will persist in frost pockets and frequent fire reentries as pure stands, but often invades true Fir stands after a catastrophic collapse. Its function is as a cover crop that conserves carbon and nutrient loss until the True Fir reestablishes in its understory. Fire or mistletoe and Scolytous Beetle infestations in the fir are the usual triggers. It’s not that the tree specie’s specific silvics prefer long fire reentry, that’s just the niche it fills for us. In places like Idaho the species dominates fire frequent sites and is not the transitional sere we see at the lower latitudes like California.  Its true silvics are Pioneer based characteristics, it is an opportunist.

Hope this is a better explanation for this resilient specie.

On Feb 1, 2013, at 09:25 AM, John Menke wrote:

Thanks Ray.  I really know little of the successional ecology of lodgepole pine.  I had one Ph.D. student, Bruce Johnson, at UC Berkeley who did a meadow invasion study of lodgepole pine at Sagehen Creek Field Station near Truckee, CA.  What he showed was that lodgepole pine seedlings could establish with just a few centimeters elevation above otherwise too wet meadow sites thereby closing in meadows with forest tree colonization, thereby losing meadows to forest over time. We see this in the Marble Mountains by other conifer species.  So even meadow invasion is a colonizing role for lodgepole pine.  Fallen over pole size or somewhat larger trees often provide these elevated colonization niches for lodgepole pine at Sagehen Creek Field Station.

So the massive lodgepole pine forests that burned in Yellowstone NP were decadent, likely due to fire suppression.  I was on a review team looking at the Yellowstone Fire during the fall period of that fire.  It was still burning while we did the tour.  I had never and will likely never again see so much abandoned cloth-covered fire hose all over the ground at each site we visited.  It seemed that the fire fighters had excess hose available and just left it as they move from site to site trying to stop the raging fire.

From: Ed Kupillas

Subject: Re: bullshit

Date: February 2, 2013 8:08:59 PM PST

To: John Menke

John, Of all the comments in this string of emails, I find Haupt’s closest to my understanding of how Lodgepole pine forests start, develop, and die. The cycle is independent of “global warming” and has been repeated for centuries. Lodgepole pine forests are almost always even aged. That means when you bore a large number of Lodgepole pine over a large area, with few if any other species of trees in the stand, that they all started at the same time. That means a large insect infestation affecting almost every tree and/or a forest fire that did the whole forest in. Lodgepole pine being a pioneer species seeded in, and very soon created a new stand. If the trees are allowed to grow into old age (120 to 150 years) some of the trees would have died and allowed other species to become established under the Lodgepole canopy. If there are no insect attacks on the Lodgepole, the forest will become a white fir or other true fir forest as the Lodgepole overstory deteriorates (dies) until some new disturbance takes place. The new disturbance may very well take out the true fir forest, too; and then you start all over again, with or without “global warming” or droughts. There is very seldom a “balance” of nature that lasts very long. Too many natural disturbances continue to take place to constantly change the character of the forest.

That’s my story after many years of studying forest development, and I’m sticking to it for now.

What does Bob Zybach have to say?

From: Bob Zybach

Subject: Re: bullshit

Date: February 2, 2013 12:08:46 AM PST

To: John Menke

Cc: Ray Haupt, Jim Petersen, Tom Bonnicksen

All: The conclusions of this paper are nonsense. I’m guessing an identification of where and how they got their research funding (“how consensus is reached”) would show this as a classic “normative science” exercise. One more gulp out of the public’s Global Warming trough.

The idea that “no relationship” exists between beetle-killed pine and subsequent wildfire events was disproven by the B&B Fire here in western Oregon, and much of western Canada during the past few decades — see attached map and newspaper headline (above, from September 3, 1994 Salem, Oregon Statesman-Journal) and compare it to the subsequent map of the B&B (choice of map colors was entirely coincidental):


So much for that theory. More than 10 years ago.

I’ve studied the historic wildfires of the PNW for about 40 years now, and fuel, slope, weather and a source of ignition seem to be consistent parameters, like always. With the possible exception of the extended drought of the 1930s (and the 1933 and 1939 Tillamook Fires and the 1936 Bandon Fire), “climate change” does not seem to be a factor, and seasonal weather patterns do not seem to be changing to any significant degree. These guys have started with a conclusion, and now they’re trying to wedge their data into place with rationale and bluster. To get paid and to keep their job.

Here’s what Leiberg observed about lodgepole pine fire regimes in the Oregon Cascades in 1899: 

(p. 298) The southern and central portions are covered with stands of lodgepole pine, all reforestations after fires and representative of all ages of burns from one hundred fifty years ago [ca. 1750] up to the present time [1899].  There is no portion of these or the heavier stands of alpine hemlock and noble fir in the northern sections of the township that have not been visited by fire within the past forty-five years [since 1855].  Reforestations consist wholly of lodgepole pine as the first growth.  In some places on warm southern declivities brush growth comes in after fires.  In other localities a grass and sedge sward covers the ground.  It is clearly evident that many of the fires have been set for the purpose of promoting these grass growths and enlarging the possible sheep range.  It is also noticeable that wherever fires have been kept down for four or five years there is gradual return to forest and a disappearance of the grass.

Here’s what he observed about fire scars around Klamath Lake:

(p. 290-291) The custom of the Indians of peeling the yellow pine at certain seasons of the year to obtain the cambium layer which they use for food, is in some localities a fruitful contributory cause toward destruction of the yellow pine by fire.  They do not carry the peeling process far enough to girdle the tree, but they remove a large enough piece of bark to make a gaping wound which never heals over and which furnishes an excellent entrance for fire.  Throughout the forests of the Klamath reservation trees barked in this manner are very common.  Along the eastern margin of Klamath marsh they are found by the thousands.

Finally, a description of some eastside spotted owl, lynx, and wolf habitat:

(p. 277) The aspect of the forest, its composition, the absence of any large tracts of solid old-growth of the species less capable of resisting fire, and the occurrence of veteran trees of red fir, noble fir, white pine, alpine hemlock, etc., singly or in small groups scattered through stands of very different species, indicate without any doubt the prevalence of widespread fires throughout this region long before the coming of the white man.  But, on the other hand, the great diversity in the age of such stands as show clearly their origin as reforestations after fires, proves that the fires during the Indian occupancy were not of such frequent occurrence nor of such magnitude as they have been since the advent of the white man.

(p. 277) The age of the burns chargeable to the era of Indian occupancy can not in most cases be traced back more than one hundred and fifty years. Between that time and the time of the white man’s ascendancy, or, between the years 1750 and 1855, small and circumscribed fires evidently were of frequent occurrence.  There were some large ones.  Thus, in T. 37 S., R. 5 E., occurs a growth of white fir nearly 75 per cent pure covering between 4,000 and 5,000 acres.  It is an even-aged stand 100 years old and is clearly a reforestation after a fire which destroyed an old growth of red fir one hundred and five or one hundred and ten years ago.  A similar tract occurs in T. 36 S., R. 5 E., only that here the reforestation is white pine instead of white fir.

(p. 277) The largest burns directly chargeable to the Indian occupancy are in Ts. 30 and 31 S., Rs. 8 and 9 E.  In addition to being the largest, they are likewise the most ancient.  The burns cover upward of 60,000 acres, all but 1,000 or 1,100 acres being in a solid block.  This tract appears to have been systematically burned by the Indians during the past three centuries [ca. 1600 to 1855].  Remains of three forests are distinctly traceable in the charred fragments of timber which here and there litter the ground.

From: John Menke

Sent: Sunday, February 3, 2013 2:09 PM

To: Bob Zybach

Cc: Jim Petersen; Ray Haupt; Tom Bonnicksen

Subject: Fwd: bullshit

Bob: This is becoming very educational for me and I suspect others as well.  Here is Ed Kupillas’ thoughts on lodgepole successional processes.  I shared your thoughts with him. You may want to give some feedback to Ed.

This internet is amazingly useful and efficient!

On Feb 3, 2013, at 08:57 PM, Ray Haupt wrote:

I agree with your assessment, Ed. The species, being serotinous, is one of the perfect cover crop species in fire-adapted ecologies.

From: Bob Zybach

Sent: Sunday, February 3, 2013 9:07 PM

To: Ray Haupt

Cc: John Menke; Jim Petersen; Tom Bonnicksen

Subject: Re: bullshit

Ray: I think they are even more adaptable than that and can sprout seedlings with or without fire. And grow in sand along the ocean without winter chilling. Very invasive and adaptable and — for a conifer — very short lived.

I agree with John, too, about the value of the Internet for having these types of discussions — and extending the conversation (with or without links and attachments) to a much wider audience, quickly and cheaply.

Sharon Friedman has expressed an interest in posting this discussion on her blog, and Jim has expressed a possible similar interest in posting on Evergreen. Is that okay with you, too?

From: Jim Petersen

Subject: Re: bullshit

Date: February 3, 2013 09:19:32 PM PST

To: Bob Zybach

Cc: Ray Haupt, John Menke, Tom Bonnicksen

Incidentally, the seminal work on lodgepole was done by the late Peter Koch, a brilliant scientist who I knew late in his life. His 3-volume series is still available through the Forest Products Society.

On Feb 4, 2013, at 4:56 AM, Ray Haupt wrote:

You’re probably right. The cone of Lodge Pole will open if exposed to solar infrared heat, not just fire as is the case with Knob Cone Pine.

The many varieties of contorta are probably being genetically mapped as we speak. I am sure there is little genetic variation if any between Shore Pine, Lodge Pole and other species like Bishop Pine here in CA. When they were described as separate species the classifiers didn’t have genetics to rely on like today but relied on plant associations, morphological and silvicultural characteristics. It is a challenge for me to keep up these days with the species and family changes occurring that affect my Dendrology Class.

From: John Menke

Subject: Re: bullshit

Date: February 4, 2013 01:36:06 PM PST

To: Ray Haupt

Cc: Bob Zybach, Jim Petersen, Tom Bonnicksen

The same is true for grasses.  The new taxonomy for some genera of grasses such as Stipa essentially eliminated the genus from California.  Microscopes used to be the taxonomists’ tool, no longer!

From: Tom Bonnicksen

Subject: Yellowstone

Date: February 4, 2013 01:15:50 PM PST

To: Bob Zybach, John Menke, Jim Petersen, Ray Haupt

Friends: I have attached a section of my book on lodgepole pine, which few people seem to have read.  I have also attached my Congressional testimony, without pictures.  Again, it seems few people have read it, as well as an article I wrote which should be helpful.

I was there in Yellowstone flying in helicopters over the fire, researching their data sets, going on field trips with their scientists, so called, and enduring the rigors of working with Democratic Congressional Committee members who love fire.  I also have more first hand pictures than most people.

Even so, it seems few people really know how fire burns in lodgepole pine forests, now or historically.  I feel like I have wasted my time unless what I write is read.  Although, I have to say I had fun and I love to write.

I am going fishing at Ponce Inlet.  Call me on my boat at xxx-xxx-xxxx.  I may return the call if the fish don’t fight too hard.