Posted on Categories Forests, Habitats, WildlifeTags , , ,

After catastrophic wildfires, forests rebound on their own 

Maya Khosla, YES! MAGAZINE

“Logging is the worst thing you can do to these forests after wildfire,” said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist of the Geos Institute. “Seedlings are killed as the logs are dragged out, and natural regeneration processes are destroyed.” Mechanical deforestation methods tend to cause soil erosion, which hinders replanting efforts and requires two or three rounds of herbicide application followed by additional replanting.

The May sun was still below the mountains when a small group of biologists set out in the brisk morning air of the Sierra Nevada. Comparing contour maps and checking radio channels, Dr. Chad Hanson and his team from the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute spread out to explore the Stanislaus National Forest, about 160 miles east of San Francisco. The team was searching for black-backed woodpeckers, which are increasingly rare in the Sierra Nevada-Cascades region and which seek out forests that have recently burned with high intensity.
The Stanislaus is one such forest.
In August 2013, the Rim Fire swept over the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, burning 402 square miles. Many feared its intense heat would prove catastrophic to the forest and its soil, leaving behind an ashen, lifeless moonscape.
“I never really spent any time in a burned forest because I was raised to think it’s just a destroyed habitat,” shrugged senior biologist Kevin Kilpatrick. “I was amazed at how much life there is.”
As the biologists made their way through the charred remains and dense new growth, mountain quail began announcing their territories with clear, high notes sung from the leafy proliferations of young black oaks and waist-high lilac bushes. Ground squirrels chased each other across a fallen ponderosa pine, charred along its length.
After three years with good rain and snow, the forest floor was so crammed with wallflowers, lupines, paintbrush, rare Clarkia australis blooms, oak and conifer seedlings, and taller saplings, that it was a challenge to step through.
Like most wildfires, the Rim Fire burned at varying severities. A vast majority of the forest burned with low or moderate intensity, charring the understory and sparing most trees, or leaving 25 to 75 percent as standing dead “snags.” About one-fifth of the Rim Fire burned with high intensity, turning more than three-quarters of the trees into charred snags.
And yet, despite the perceived damage, research has shown that high-intensity fires quickly grow into some of the rarest and most biodiverse habitats in the Sierra Nevada.
Read more at: After Catastrophic Wildfires, Forests Rebound on Their Own by Maya Khosla — YES! Magazine

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California plans to log its drought-killed trees: may not reduce fire risk 

 Jane Braxton Little, HIGH COUNTRY NEWS

…at the heart of the logging debate is the question of whether dead trees are a fire hazard.  The conventional assumption is that insect outbreaks increase wildfire risk because dead trees are more flammable than green ones. That is a conclusion most scientists have long disputed.

Looking north from Blue Canyon near Shaver Lake, copper-colored forests blanket mountain slopes that stretch ridge after ridge to the horizon. The patches of fading green that dappled these hillsides last fall have merged into an unbroken cover of rust-needled pines.  At dusk, when the winds die down, an eerie stillness gives way to the muffled sound of munching as beetles chomp through one tree after another, thousands after thousands.

This is the look — and the sound — of drought.

Four consecutive winters with little to no snowpack, followed by four dry summers, have devastated California’s southern Sierra Nevada. At least 66 million trees are already dead statewide, and millions more are expected to die as the drought persists into a fifth summer.

On the Sierra National Forest, up to 90 percent of the mid-elevation ponderosa pines are dead.  Weakened by drought, oaks are succumbing to sudden oak death along the central and northern coast, and the disease has moved into the Central Valley. Pines gray as ghosts haunt coastal, Cascade and Sierra foothills. The epidemic is spreading across choice vistas owned by millionaires as well as remote landscapes rarely entered by humans.

And the bark beetles that caused this desolation? They’re reproducing at triple the normal rate. Forest ecologists used to consider them a natural part of the forest dynamic — and they are. Stressed by drought and decades of air pollution in overcrowded stands, however, the natural chemicals trees pitch out in self-defense can’t keep up with the onslaught of bugs.  No one is calling what’s happening here natural anymore.

“Nobody imagined this would come on as fast as it has, or be as lethal,” says Craig Thomas, conservation director for Sierra Forest Legacy, a coalition focused on Sierra Nevada national forest issues. “And nobody really knows what the hell to do.”

Overwhelmed by the die-off, forest management agencies are resorting to a century-old strategy: removing dead trees to minimize future wildfires, which they predict will be inevitable and cataclysmic. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in October, citing a public safety hazard from falling trees and worsening wildfire risks. The tree mortality task force he convened has marshaled a small army to log over 6 million acres.

Read more at: California plans to log its drought-killed trees (Forest fatalities) — High Country News

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Congress tries to speed up contentious post-fire logging 

New legislation comes despite science showing timber salvage harms essential wildlife habitat
Jodi Peterson, HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
The third-largest wildfire in California history, 2013’s Rim Fire, burned more than 400 square miles, including parts of Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest. A year later, the Forest Service proposed cutting down the dead and damaged trees across about 50 square miles, but environmental groups sued to stop the salvage logging, saying it would harm wildlife and impede forest regeneration.
Their appeal was denied and logging began, but the groups’ concerns are increasingly borne out by science: Recently-released studies point to the crucial importance of burned-over habitat for many species, including the Pacific fisher and black-backed woodpecker. Despite this, Congressional Republicans are pushing two bills, supported by the timber industry, that would speed up logging in national forests after wildfires and reduce environmental review.
Read more at: Congress tries to speed up contentious post-fire logging — High Country News

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Nature replants its own burned forests, environmentalists say

Nigel Duara, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

During the dry summer of 2011, wind gusts sent a 75-foot aspen tumbling into a power line, sparking a fire on federal land that burned for five weeks over an area the size of Manhattan. All that was left in the hottest burn zones was a silent swath of blackened trees and ash-covered ground.
Federal foresters decided the towering ponderosa pines would never return and declared the area dead, the first step in a process to allow timber companies to harvest trees on public land that would otherwise be off-limits.
But a growing body of fire research indicates that the federal salvage strategy creates more problems than it solves by stunting tree regrowth, denying habitat to a variety of species and increasing the risk of erosion.
Salvage logging destroys the forest’s initial regrowth efforts in nutrient-rich soil and needlessly removes shrubs that are probably beneficial to sapling trees, short-circuiting the natural life cycle of the forest, according to research.
“It’s kicking the forest when it’s down,” said Chad Hanson of the John Muir Project, an environmental nonprofit that opposes salvage logging.
The Forest Service and timber companies say that the dead wood must be removed before the forest can grow and that shrubs have to be killed off with herbicides so the conifers have sun to grow again.
Though part of the Las Conchas fire site was salvage-logged, another section outside New Mexico’s remote Jemez Springs was not.
Four years after the blaze, the Jemez Springs area today is alive with Gambel oak and three-toed woodpeckers, along with occasional conifer saplings growing amid the brush.
“See this?” Hanson said, pulling back a strand of oak to reveal a rubbery green pine sapling just an inch tall. “They said this wouldn’t be here, but we found it. And there’s more.”
By contrast, in places like California’s Rim fire site, salvage crews immediately began felling burned pines and dying trees, spraying the area with herbicide and planting conifer saplings. The result is little ground vegetation but stands of artificially planted conifers returning apace.

Read more at: Nature replants its own burned forests, environmentalists say