After the massive Rim Fire occurred last year in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park of California’s Sierra Nevada, representatives from the U.S. Forest Service fanned the flames of fear and misunderstanding regarding wildland fire. In a news article published shortly after the fire was contained, a Forest Service official claimed that a 38,000-acre area was a “moonscape” that had been “nuked” by the Rim Fire, creating a lifeless environment where soils had been sterilized and nothing would grow. (By the time it was contained, the Rim Fire had affected 257,171 acres.) The Forest Service also claimed the high-severity burn covered some 63,000 acres and that those areas “may not see trees in them for a long time.”
no conifer forest would regenerate unless the Forest Service removed “fuels” and created artificial tree plantations.
Nature, however, begs to differ. Already, in the first spring after the smoke cleared, a very different story is unfolding – a story of ecological rejuvenation and richness. Even in the largest high-intensity fire patches, where the fire burned hottest, there are now dozens, hundreds, and in some cases thousands of naturally regenerated conifer seedlings per acre. Oaks are sprouting, shrubs and grasses are growing, and a wild jumble of colorful flowers cover the landscape. Woodpeckers, warblers and many other bird species already inhabit the high-intensity fire patches. Deer are browsing on the post-fire regrowth. This is anything but a lifeless environment. It is a rich, vibrant, growing ecosystem that is full of wildlife.
It’s important that the public understands the restorative power of fire, because right now the Forest Service is using the widespread misunderstanding of fire to propose one of the largest and most destructive commercial logging projects in the history of the National Forest system. The Forest Service’s “Rim Fire logging project” would essentially clear cut about 44,000 acres of ecologically vital “snag forest habitat”. This tractor logging would not only remove nearly all of the snags – which provide food and shelter for birds such as the black-backed woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, white-headed woodpecker, wrens, bluebirds, flickers and many others – but would also crush and kill most of the natural conifer and other regeneration that is occurring in the Rim fire on the Stanislaus National Forest. According to Randi Spivak of the Center for Biological Diversity: “It’s little more than an excuse to cut old trees in forests that would otherwise be protected.”
Certainly, a patch of ground with little or no vegetation can be found in the Rim Fire area if one looks hard enough – but such a space will not be very large. The natural regeneration now occurring is the rule, not the exception, even in the most intensely burned areas.
While there is vigorous regrowth occurring even in the high-intensity fire patches, it’s crucial to note there was not nearly as much high-intensity fire as initially reported. In fact, the fire’s effects were far more variable than the Forest Service claimed. Using the Forest Service’s own fire intensity data from satellite imagery, we can see that the largest high-intensity fire patches within conifer forest were about 1,000 to 7,000 acres in size – not 63,000 acres. And there are numerous pockets of surviving trees within these high-intensity fire patches, contrary to Forest Service claims.
One of the most striking phenomena currently occurring in the Rim Fire area is the “flushing” of new foliage in conifers that appeared to be dead, but were not. These are trees, especially ponderosa pines, that had zero remaining live needles after the fire. But the buds survived at the ends of branches in the upper portion of the tree crowns. Now thousands and thousands of such trees are producing new green needles through a process called “flushing.” Many if not most of these trees will survive long-term, providing natural seed sources in countless places within large, high-intensity fire patches. In fact, in some areas that were mapped as having experienced high-intensity fire, the flushing is revealing that most trees are alive, even though they all appeared dead until just a few weeks ago.
Of course, there are also pockets in which all of the trees truly were killed in the fire. Such areas often pose the greatest challenge to human understanding. Many people tend to think of forests the same way they think of their homes and other possessions, mistakenly believing that since a fire will destroy a home, it must do the same to the forest. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, the pockets where all of the trees are dead create “snag forest habitat,” which scientists now know is one of the most ecologically rich, rare, and most threatened of all forest habitat types in the Western US. We have much less of this habitat now than we did historically, due to fire suppression and post-fire logging policies. Last October, some 250 scientists sent a letter to Congress regarding the Rim Fire and urging lawmakers to appreciate the high ecological value of this habitat, and not weaken or roll-back federal environmental laws. The scientists concluded:
Though it may seem at first glance that a post-fire landscape is a catastrophe ecologically, numerous scientific studies tell us that even in patches where forest fires burned most intensely the resulting post-fire community is one of the most ecologically important and biodiverse habitat types in western conifer forest. Post-fire conditions serve as a refuge for rare and imperiled wildlife that depend upon the unique habitat features created by intense fire. These include an abundance of standing dead trees or “snags” that provide nesting and foraging habitat for woodpeckers and many other wildlife species, as well as patches of native flowering shrubs that replenish soil nitrogen and attract a diverse bounty of beneficial insects that aid in pollination after fire…This post-fire habitat, known as “complex early seral forest,” is quite simply some of the best wildlife habitat in forests and is an essential stage of natural forest processes. Moreover, it is the least protected of all forest habitat types and is often as rare, or rarer, than old-growth forest, due to damaging forest practices encouraged by post-fire logging policies.
We are discovering that many of the things we thought were true about forest fires were quite incorrect, and nowhere was the disconnection between fact and mythology more evident than in the early reporting on the Rim Fire. Self-serving rhetoric from the US Forest Service (which keeps many millions of dollars each year from timber sales revenue) and timber industry proponents were treated as truth, and wild speculation from locals was reported as credible information. For example, the Sacramento Bee quoted an unsubstantiated assertion from a local pro-logging person who claimed that “tens of millions” of animals were killed in the Rim Fire, supposedly because the flames moved so fast that few animals could fly or run fast enough to escape. In reality, according to the government’s own maps the Rim Fire’s daily progression, the fire only moved at about one-half of one mile per hour on the fastest days. So, with rare exceptions, animals simply moved out of the way of the fire as it advanced. Also, numerous newspapers published quotes from Forest Service and timber industry representatives making extreme statements about the severity of the Rim Fire within conifer forests. Actually, of the 257,171 acres that burned, about 151,258 acres was in conifer forest; the remainder was grassland, chaparral, oak woodland, or rock outcroppings. Of the mature forest that burned on federal lands, only 29 percent burned at high intensity – well within the natural range of variability. And, as discussed above, these high-intensity fire areas contain many pockets of trees that actually survived the fire, so this estimate is likely high. Thus, even in this very large fire, only a minor portion of it created snag forest habitat.
Unfortunately, the misinformation continues. In addition to its post-fire logging plans, the Forest Service wants to conduct a massive program to remove native flowering shrubs and create artificial tree plantations. This is a major ecological threat, because native shrubs attract flying insects that provide food for birds and bats, contributing to the amazing and abundant biological diversity of these snag forest patches. Also, because of fire suppression and post-fire management practices – logging, and killing of shrubs with herbicides–we have far less of this native shrub habitat now than we did historically. Currently, several shrub-nesting bird species associated with high-intensity fire areas are experiencing protracted population declines in the Sierra Nevada, including the orange-crowned warbler, yellow warbler, wrentit, and Brewer’s blackbird. And yet the Forest Service has refused recommendations from scientists, including its own, to (a) preserve more than 75 percent of the snag forest habitat created on national forest lands; and (b) avoid logging during nesting season, when chicks are in the nest but cannot yet fly (logging during this season results in the unnecessary death of thousands of birds).
The Forest Service’s primary justification given for this enormous clearcutting project on federal public lands is that the agency wants to recover “economic value” from the standing fire-killed trees in order to enhance the agency’s own budget. Under a little-known law called the “Salvage Sale Fund”, the Forest Service keeps 100 percent of the revenue from selling public timber to private logging companies, creating a perverse financial incentive. Tellingly, the agency characterizes (see link above) the snags in the fire area as a “commodity.” The Forest Service also claims that post-fire logging (mostly clearcutting) will remove “fuels” and reduce future fire intensity. However, scientific studies that have investigated this question have found that post-fire logging does not reduce future fire intensity, and often increases it since such logging removes relatively inflammable large snags and places more combustible branches and twigs on the ground all at once.
There is no need for human intervention to “restore” the Rim Fire area. If we can set aside decades of misinformed prejudice about wild fire, we will see that ecological restoration is occurring, naturally, right before our eyes. There is a message emanating from this landscape, telling us that fires in our forests – including large, intense fires – are restorative events that create unique, rich habitats. We do not need to be afraid. Rather, we should celebrate the rejuvenating effect of mixed-intensity fire in our forests. We need to learn to appreciate the forest ecosystem for all of its parts – not just live, green trees, but also snags, downed logs, and shrubs resulting from nature’s most important ecological force in Western US conifer forests: fire.
Chad Hanson is the director of the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute. He has a Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of California at Davis, and focuses his research on fire ecology in conifer forests of California and the western US. For more information, watch a video of Dr. Hanson’s recent presentation on the restorative virtues of the Rim Fire, and the ecological value of snag forest habitat (vimeo.com/95535429), visit www.johnmuirproject.org, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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