27 May 2008, 12:34pm
Forestry education Saving Forests
by admin

The Genesis of Old-Growth Forests, Part 3

Part 3 — Restoring Old-Growth Forests

Most North American forests arose during millennia of frequent, human-set fires, i.e. anthropogenic fire. For millennia, anthropogenic fires were so frequent that they engendered open, park-like forests wherein individual trees grew to great ages.

During the last 150 years (more than that in eastern regions) anthropogenic fire has been eliminated (along with most of the humans who set them). The absence of anthropogenic fire has allowed our forests to accumulate an abundance of fuel in the form of young trees, duff, debris, litter, dead trees, etc.

When fires enter modern forests, they combust hugely and decimate the forests. Vast tracts formerly covered with trees are converted to brushfields because the intense heat, fueled by extreme fuel accumulations, kills everything-heritage old growth trees included.

Stand-replacement fire is not the historical development pathway that led to our old-growth forests. Old-growth forests of today are strongly multi-cohort, and the older trees arose under a different ecological pathway, one of regular, frequent, seasonal anthropogenic fire.

Formerly forests were open and park-like with widely spaced trees. Because frequent, light-burning fires in open, park-like forests did not kill all the trees, individual trees lived for incredibly long lifespans. Those conditions gave rise to ancient trees. Modern forest conditions preclude the opportunity for trees to attain great ages.

To save our old-growth, and to restore the development pathways that lead to old trees, we must also restore the appropriate forest conditions and disturbances.

Landscape restoration is a complex undertaking because many vegetation types were present long ago. These include prairies, grassy slopes, vast berry fields, and savannas with wild food crops, bracken fern brakes, and camas meadows. A system of foot roads webbed the landscape. Traditional human use areas were everywhere.

Only a portion of the landscape was forest, but those portions are the concern of this essay. Restoration of non-forest areas is also important, and very worthy of consideration, study, and action. I concentrate on the forested areas in this essay, however.

Restoring forests to historic conditions, and restoring the development pathways that lead to old-growth (long-lived) trees, requires the re-creation of open, park-like conditions and regular,frequent, seasonal, anthropogenic fire.

Modern overly-dense forests must be thinning mechanically, the leave trees widely spaced, the excess fuel loadings removed, and then they must be carefully but repeatedly burned with low-running fires during the fall months.

Fire itself has been suggested as a tool to reduce fuel loadings. Sadly, prescribed fire, wildland fire use, or other common intentional fire types often do more damage than good. They add to the fuel loading by killing all the green trees. They do not reduce fuel loading; indeed such fires often increase fuels. Modern forest fires encourage beetles and fungi that kill any trees that made it through the flames. Forests are less healthy and more prone to catastrophic fire after the “treatment” than before.

In contrast, preparing a forest to receive a beneficial fire requires the removal of most of the 150 years of fuel buildup prior to ignition. At the very least, excess fuels must be piled and burned in winter before any attempt is made to broadcast burn the forest floor.

Fire is indiscriminate, but people are not. People can and must make the choices about which trees to leave and which to remove. Large and healthy trees with ample crowns, thick bark, and low height-to-diameter ratios should be left at wide spacings, with crowns separated. Leave trees should also be pruned of low limbs which can ladder fire up into the crowns. Accumulated duff and other fuels should be raked away from the leave tree bases.

If a forest is prepared to receive fire, it doesn’t matter if people set the fires or lightning ignites them. In either case, the prepared forest will not be devastated. Trees will live through repeated fires and thus attain great ages. The historical development pathways of old-growth will be restored.

The outcomes of restoration forestry also include production of wood products from the thinnings, protection of watersheds and landscapes from catastrophic fires, and protection, maintenance, and perpetuation of wildlife habitat.

Stewardship of forests is an ancient art and practice. Our forests are not “wilderness, untrammeled by man” but instead are homelands and tended landscapes of deep antiquity. Restoration forestry also restores the traditional human connections with nature and the land.

Foresters have done it, and we know that preparing forests to receive fires works. Underburning a prepared forest is actually kind of fun (if you are not the guy in charge sweating bullets). It is more like smoky gardening than going to war (which is what modern catastrophic fire suppression is similar to).

We need new institutions and a new cadre of foresters and fire tenders who have been trained in restoring old-growth development pathways and application of the appropriate treatments. We need a School of Restoration Forestry where the subject can be studied. Forests are diverse, and each patch on each forest requires careful, informed guidelines for restoration. A School of Restoration Forestry could educate students about how to do that in different forest types and conditions.

We need a movement, a national discussion about the role of restoration in our forests, and how restoration can reduce firefighting costs, prevent catastrophes, and protect, maintain, and perpetuate our priceless heritage forests.

Abandonment is not stewardship. Wildfire is not silviculture. Only active restoration forestry can save our old-growth forests, and create the conditions whereby trees can attain great ages. Old-growth forests have not and do not arise by accident. We must assume the responsibility and recreate the ancient practices if we wish to protect, maintain, and perpetuate old-growth forests.

28 May 2008, 2:18pm
by Joe B.

Well, in about 200 years from now, perhaps the Payette and Boise forests can again be dominated by giant old-growth trees. As it is now, we’ve got a lot of dirt. I’m thinking of going in myself and planting trees in a pattern that can easily be read from space, I’m thinking of spelling out “They let it burn in 2007.” I wonder if that will get through to somebody.

28 May 2008, 3:39pm
by John M.


Your three part series explaining the history of western forests is an excellent essay, and needs to be read by people concerned about the future of our forests. I plan to make copies and circulate through my various networks.

I would add one small addition. You mention the need to train foresters in restoration forestry. I agree, but would add there is a need for foresters to also be in place; to know the land they manage so their knowledge becomes wisdom from years of observation and working with the forests.

28 May 2008, 11:39pm
by Mike

Selected references for this essay. All the below may be found in the W.I.S.E. Library [here].

Blackburn, Thomas C. and Kat Anderson (eds.). 1993. Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians. Menlo Park, CA: Ballena Press.

Bonnicksen, Thomas M. 2000. America’s Ancient Forests–From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery. John Wiley and Sons.

Bonnicksen, Thomas M. 2007. Protecting Communities And Saving Forests–Solving the Wildfire Crisis Through Restoration Forestry. The Forest Foundation.

Boyd, Robert. 1999. Indians, Fire and the Land in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon State University Press.

Carloni, Ken. 2005. The Ecological Legacy of Indian Burning Practices in Southwestern Oregon. Doctoral dissertation, Oregon State Univ.

Connolly, Thomas J. Anthropological and Archaeological Perspectives on Native Fire Management of the Willamette Valley.

Dubrasich, Michael E. and Gregory J. Brenner. 2008. Comments to the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Regarding “Appropriate Management Response”. Western Institute for Study of the Environment.

Pyne, Stephen J. 1995. World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth. University of Washington Press.

Pyne, Stephen J. 1982. Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. University of Washington Press.

Stewart, Omer C. with Henry T. Lewis and M. Kat Anderson (eds.). 2002. Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Williams, Gerald W. 2003. References on the American Indian Use of Fire in Ecosystems.

Zybach, Bob. The Great Fires: Indian Burning and Catastrophic Forest Fire Patterns of the Oregon Coast Range, 1491-1957. 2003. PhD Thesis, Oregon State University.

29 May 2008, 12:16am
by Joe B.

After a few bourbons to help me, I now think I should plant the trees to spell out “AMR?” for appropriate management response question mark.

You be the judge, was the 2007 management response appropriate?

29 May 2008, 9:22am
by Bob Z.

Joe B.:

Sounds like a wonderful plan and an excellent use of the medicinal values inherent in bourbon.

I have not been to the Payette-Boise burn, though, and am concerned you may be wasting your time and liquor. Most forest fires leave more available fuel behind than they first encounter; dead trees being more combustible than green. The problem becomes worse over time as the dead trees become drier, begin falling, and grass, fireweed and other flash fuels invade the former forestlands.

Examples of this process are the 2002 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire in Oregon which used snags from the 1987 180,000-acre Silver Complex as a launching pad, and the “Six-Year Jinx” Tillamook Fires of 1933, 1939, 1945, and 1951, also in Oregon, which burned many snags two, three, and four times.

Will your well-intended and considered efforts merely provide additional fuel for the next reburn before serving their purpose? That is my concern.

Good luck!

29 May 2008, 12:44pm
by Mike

The Payette and Boise NFs are destined for repeat burns every 25 years or so. There will never be 200 year old trees there again, not unless the completely management approach is completely altered.

That is true also of the Biscuit Burn; it is destined to become permanent brush. The 150 to 600 year old trees that were destroyed in the Biscuit Fire did not arise there by accident of nature. That is very important to understand. Nature alone does not create old-growth outside of rare and isolated fire refugia.

Joe B. and I are putting together a photo montage of the Payette Boise damage. Those pictures will show how severely those fires burned, and how the forests were utterly destroyed.

31 May 2008, 5:04pm
by Wes

We can see the process that Bob Z describes in the area burned by the 2002 Arizona Rodeo fire. Lots of snags, more falling every year, thick brush growing through the clutter. Fortunately so far (knock on wood) we’ve had a wet year, with 5 inches of new snow at the house on Memorial Day weekend. Of course, that only postpones the day of reckoning.

Thanks, Mike, for this 3-part article. It’s a keeper.



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