Burning Issues

  |  Gorp.com

Living things eventually will move onto these horrendously scarred lands. Without some human intervention, the chances are good the first round of colonizers will be extremely competitive nonnative plants, or competitive native varieties, even if they were never part of the original forest community. With time and luck, an even-aged stand of conifers will appear. Given the poor soils and brief growing season of the region, it will take at least 50 to 100 years for that stand to mature. In the meantime, important wildlife habitat is lost: nesting sites for owls; berry-producing shrubs needed by bears; flowers to make pollen for insects, which in turn feed songbirds. The losses ripple throughout a forest ecosystem.

Stable forests can regenerate from even a catastrophic fire. Twelve years after fires consumed more than 1 million acres of its forests, Yellowstone National Park is thriving. But Yellowstone had never been clearcut. Nor had it endured decades of livestock grazing, off-road vehicles, wetland and stream degradation, weed infestations, and other ills that are common on national forest lands. All of these activities render today's forests fragile and unstable. A big wildfire becomes the knockout punch. In forests changed from top to bottom by human activities, can the wildfires of today bring about the right kind of renewal? If not, what else can be done to help stabilize forests and mitigate the loss of natural diversity?

Wilderness Areas
The U.S. Forest Service estimates that more than 40 million acres of western forests are at risk for severe wildfires. Included in this total are some federal wilderness areas, where fire suppression in past years has resulted in deep layers of deadfall, litter, and flammable, undernourished trees. The natural diversity of plants and animals in these protected areas has declined as a result. Wilderness legislation prohibits human manipulation of these lands; prescribed burns, selective harvesting, or thinning forests in wilderness areas are not options. Threatened and endangered species represent a further complication. Protected lands such as wilderness areas often represent the best remaining habitats for species as large as grizzly bears or as small as orchids. In purely scientific terms, charting a beneficial course of action is daunting enough; add environmental politics to the equation, and the problems become overwhelming.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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