15 Apr 2009, 10:37am
Forestry education
by admin

Brief Daylight in the Swamp

Dear Friends — I apologize for the dearth of posts over the last two weeks. I have been very busy travelling, farming, writing proposals, firing ceramics, bleeding taxes, and what have you. Yesterday I built a greenhouse, for instance, since the globe is not warming, at least not around here.

It will take another two weeks to drain this swamp of immediate chores, too. The output at SOS Forests will continue to be less than usual until May, although there are numerous issue we really need to cover, such as the “new” Federal fire policies (which are nothing new — the same old No Touch, Let It Burn, Watch It Rot — just rehashed bureaucratic bomfoggery). I promise and resolve to find more free minutes to freely point out the stark naked state of the Imperial Elite.

In the meantime, however, I did receive an interesting email from Ryan that is worth discussing. Ryan’s email was sent to the Old SOS Forests [here] which has been moribund for over a year since we moved the active nexus here to W.I.S.E.

That indicates to me that Ryan has not been paying attention, but no matter; his complaints are instructive. Ryan writes:

You guys don’t know anything. Fire is normal in Ponderosa ecosystems. The trees that die are meant to die and the forest will eventually thin out into a heavily wooded savanna. The reason those trees are dying is that they are weak from overcrowding. Let it do its work and in a couple hundred years you will see a much more healthy forest. I am from Arizona and have studied this extensively. I have read many papers and written my own for school projects. Look up NAU’s Ecological Restoration website. Go to a natural old growth Ponderosa forest and you will see. I have seen many old growth trees with fire scars. This system PRE-DATES any anthropogenic disturbance. If you do the research you will see you are wrong. By the way, there are also supposed to be standing dead and fallen logs, so if you don’t have your fair share you will now.

It is not enough to caste Ryan’s words aside as youthful folly, though they are that. The points he (she?) makes are typical uninformed mythology, and so are usefully disputed.

First, we agree that fire is a common phenomenon in ponderosa pine. But not all fires are the same, nor are all ponderosa pine forests identical. Fire A is not Fire B. The ancient pine forests of the Southwestern sky island plateaus are there because of frequent, regular, light-burning fires set by the indigenous residents over millennia. The modern catastrophic fires convert ancient ponderosa pine forests to something else, typically cheat grass and brush. So while some types of fire may be called “normal,” other types of fire are extremely debilitating to ponderosa pine ecosystems.

Second (and this is the most worthy part of Ryan’s email) the open, park-like ponderosa pine forests of the Southwest (that were so marveled at by early explorers) did not arise because fire “thinned out” small trees. That is a complete misconception of the forest development pathway. The frequent anthropogenic fires came first; the widely-spaced trees moved in afterward.

This is important. The burning came first — the open forest seeded into a frequent fire landscape that was mostly devoid of trees. It did not happen the other way around. Fire did not thin the forest — instead, scattered trees took root in a frequently charred landscape.

We know this because the wide growth rings near the pith (when the old trees were young) and other tree characteristics indicate that most (nearly all) old-growth trees were open-grown, not stand-grown. They were scattered pioneers that invaded treeless ground (or a savanna/woodland), not remnant stand-grown trees that survived a forest fire.

That is the development pathway that leads to open, park-like, uneven-aged, frequent fire forests. The frequent fire prairies precede the savannas, which in turn precede modern multicohort forests; The old trees became established in grasses — grasses don’t become established under trees.

Ryan says “Let [fire] do its work and in a couple hundred years you will see a much more healthy forest.”

No, that’s not scientifically correct. The fuels accumulate between infrequent “natural” fires to the extent that those fires are “stand replacing.” Nothing survives the intense heat of a fuel-laden severe fire. Dense thickets of young trees can arise — which are then fully roasted a few decades later.

Dense thickets of young trees are the “natural” condition of most conifers. Open, park-like forests with ancient trees are largely anthropogenic in origin.

That’s a tough concept to fully absorb, given the gloss of Clementsian ecological theory that has so clouded the field for the last 80 years. It boggles the ill-trained minds of Joe Sixpack’s kids, annealed as they are with modern public educations, to imagine that our forests have been subjected to intense human manipulation for thousands of years.

But they have. Our forests have been anthropo-sized. Many of them, anyway — the old-growth especially, which do not represent the “normal” condition of conifers.

The rest of Ryan’s note attempts to establish his credentials, but fails. That’s okay; we don’t expect everyone to understand the nuances of forest ecology. Heck, we know many professional forest ecologists with long pedigrees who still don’t get it.

Historical human influences on our landscapes were profound regardless of who knows about it. That is the essence of the new paradigm in forest ecology. The old paradigm held, as does Ryan, that Mother Nature alone creates old-growth forests. Sadly (for the Old Paradigmers), that just isn’t so.

Nowhere in nature are new open, park-like, old-growth forests being created. Look anywhere and you won’t see that happening. Wilderness areas, for instance, have been set aside to be subjected to fully “natural” influences, and many the fire has ripped through “wilderness” forests. Nowhere, not in a single instance, has any fire “thinned” the small trees and left the large ones.

The evidence in support of the old paradigm is sorely lacking. Since theories depend on evidence for validity, and the evidence is utterly missing, the old paradigm theories are perforce wrong.

Instead, all the evidence suggests that grasslands are invaded by trees and not the other way around, and that anthropogenic fire is required to establish and maintain open, park-like forests with ancient trees.

Thank you, Ryan, for this opportunity to educate you and others. I hope the lesson took root. Meanwhile, back to the Swamp of Chores.

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