Three-Needle Pines and the Collective Unconscious

by Mike Dubrasich

My friend Svend writes:

When pine trees grows to dense, the cones on the ground will not receive enough heat from the sun to dry up and spread the seeds… the best way for many types of pine trees is a forest fire. A baby pine tree cannot survive in the darkness. A few species actually need forest fires to reproduce.

In this case mass suicide can help the problem… when the trees decide to secure the next generation of pine trees, they actually die (collectively) and then the bark beetles attack the trees… as a kind of support for the process, to remove all the conifers so the sunlight can reach the soil under the trees. It’s part of the big symbiosis system.

Now it’s just a matter of waiting for a lightning storm to start the fire.

Svend is wrong, mostly, but he inspires this teaching moment.

The preceding mini-myth about pines may hold partially true for boreal 2-needled pines: lodgepole, jack, Scots, and even pinyon. They are basically all the same species. Some (not all) have serotinous cones. They seed in like mad after a fire and grow in dense, even-aged thickets of 1,500-5,000 stems per acre or more. That’s a tree every three feet on center. Two-needled pines were the first trees to invade boreal regions after the ice sheets melted 15,000 years ago.

But then there are the 3-needled pines: ponderosa, Jeffery, Monterey, long leaf, etc.

The 3-needle pines are basically all the same species, too. Pines are epigenetic [here]. Their complex genetic code, developed over hundreds of millions of years, enables individual trees to radically change morphology in response to environmental stressors. Witness Bonsai trees. My friend Mark writes:

The world is rubbery. The governing algorithm is far more elegant and powerful than we realize, genome mapping notwithstanding.

That’s why I (and others) say the 3-needle pines are basically the same species, though different from the 2-needle pines.

The 3-needle pines invaded much of North America about 9,000 years ago, long after the ice melted, and some 6,000 years after humans arrived here. Think about that.

8,800 years later, when the first Euro-American explorers traipsed across North America, they found millions of acres of 3-needle pines. They weren’t in thickets like 2-needle pines. Instead they were in open, park-like, savanna-like forests with 5 to 20 trees per acre. The trees were all ages (uneven-aged). The 3-needle pines dominated, even though other conifers and hardwoods were often present in small numbers, and even though today firs, aspen, liquidamber, and other species dominate those same stands (proving that those species could have grown there and dominated, although they didn’t).

Open, park-like, pine savannas present an anomaly to Svend’s theory. His pine theory just doesn’t fit the real world, across MILLIONS of acres.

For that matter, neither does “forest succession” theory. That one derives from Frederic Clements, who in the 1910’s invented the idea that forests succeed — that they change species as they proceed from early seral stages to climax conditions. Freudian undertones aside, the vast 3-needle pine savannas are anomalies to Clementsian theory, too.

If forest succession is a Law of Nature, then why didn’t MILLIONS of acres of 3-needle pines succeed naturally to shade-tolerant firs and hardwoods?

It is a statement about the human condition that millions of acres of forests don’t fit the theories and yet the theories still are in place, taught in schools, are believed in by so many, including many esteemed forest scientists. The world does not fit the model, yet the model rules.

That’s not Freudian, it’s Jungian. We are a myth-making animal. We prefer myth over reality. We will blind our eyes to reality when it doesn’t comport with our treasured myths. The Collective Unconscious is asleep at the wheel.

In the case of global warming, the myth we treasure is that human beings are capable of destroying the planet, of committing original sin and sullying the Garden, and that the gods must and will punish us for our sins, and bring an End to the World in their wrath at our transgressions.

Those who question the myths of the Collective Unconscious are declared apostates and outcasts, and are stoned to death at the gates of the city.

Back to the pines. So what really happened? How did those 3-needle pine savannas arise? Or as a forest scientist might put it, if he happened to notice the anomalies to the treasured theories, what was the disturbance regime that drove the 3-needle pine forest development pathways? Here’s a corollary conundrum: why are those pine savannas NOT arising today, but instead they are disappearing? Whatever was driving ecosystem dynamics for the last 9,000 years isn’t any longer. Isn’t that curious?

Here’s the answer: anthropogenic fire. Three-needle pines in North America have not grown without human influences on the environment during the entire Holocene. The main influence, i.e. disturbance regime, was Indian burning. Not Indians on fire, but Indians setting fire frequently to the landscape on a continental scale.

Human beings entered North America ~13,500 years ago or even earlier. Their principal tool for survival and obtaining sustenance was fire. Indeed, human beings have utilized landscape fire for at least 40,000 years in Australia. Cooking fires have been utilized for at least 1.6 million years [here], originally by pre-sapiens hominids. The earliest human immigrants to the Americas had a cultural history of fire use dating back a million and a half years!

The effects of anthropogenic (human-set) fire on the environment has been profound worldwide. People have deliberately and expertly burned virtually the entire continent on every continent every year for thousands of years at a minimum. Those human practices induced 3-needle pine savannas from Florida to BC, from California to New England.

I cordially invite you to read about the effects of historical anthropogenic fire on an Oregon watershed [here]:

Dubrasich, Mike. 2010. Stand Reconstruction and 200 Years of Forest Development on Selected Sites in the Upper South Umpqua Watershed. W.I.S.E. White Paper 2010-5. Western Institute for Study of the Environment.

The burning was not just in temperate zones. People burned the tropics, too. And boreal forests. And Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia. People have been burning everywhere for millennia. There are no wilderness areas where the imprint of Man has been absent, because Man has been everywhere and doing stuff, major stuff, like setting the world afire whenever he could. See [here]:

William Denevan. 1992. The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492. Annals of the American Association of Geographers v. 82 n. 3 (Sept. 1992), pp. 369-385.

All that burning altered the carbon cycle. Plants grew, fixing carbon, but then people burned that biomass, sooner rather than later, and the carbon was emitted and returned to the atmosphere. There was no (or very little) terrestrial carbon build-up. No new coal beds have formed during the Holocene.

It didn’t take many people to do all that burning. On the right day with the vegetation dry and the wind blowing, one person could easily burn a million acres. That’s an area 40 miles by 40 miles. Set the fire in Salem and let it burn up to and over the Cascade Crest. “Let it burn” is an euphemism. A thousand years ago, without fire crews and equipment, how could you stop it?

So not that many people are required to do one heck of a lot of burning. On the other hand, the best estimates were that 50 million people lived in the Americas on the day Columbus landed. That’s a lot, and they did a lot of burning. Continental-scale is not an exaggeration.

Within 100 years, however, the human population of the Americas crashed 90 to 95%, mainly from smallpox, measles, and other Old World diseases. The burning didn’t cease, but it became much less frequent. The plants still grew, fixing carbon, but they didn’t get torched off so quickly. That sudden change in the status quo reverberated through the carbon cycle. It also increased the Earth’s albedo, from charcoal black to shiny green. Wind-borne soot decreased. The entire planet became shinier. Not only did atmospheric CO2 decrease, but more incoming solar radiation (insolation) was reflected instead of absorbed.

Some folks (more friends of mine) speculate that those changes brought on the Little Ice Age. See [here]:

Robert A. Dull, Richard J. Nevle, William I. Woods, Dennis K. Bird, Shiri Avnery, and William M. Denevan. 2010. The Columbian Encounter and the Little Ice Age: Abrupt Land Use Change, Fire, and Greenhouse Forcing. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 100(4) 2010, pp. 1–17.

Now, you may not agree with their hypothesis. My friend Anthony Watts doesn’t. He made fun of it, at his Watts Up With That website [here] and the commenters at WUWT were very derisive.

But they are largely ignorant of the reality of human pre-history, and of anthropogenic fire, and have never even noticed the vast 3-needle pine savannas, or thought about them, or considered how anomalous they are.

Like most folks, they are locked into the Euro-American Creation Myth, that God made this Wilderness for the enjoyment of Euro immigrants, until we sullied it and forced the gods to inflict some terrible Apocalypse upon us.

The WUWT commenters are “climate skeptics”, and they think that “skeptics” are very “realistic” because they reject the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming Myth. Okay, fine, I applaud them for that. But really they still suffer from all that other Medieval Jungian mythology. They are not as skeptical as they think themselves to be.

But you and I have been through that, and this is not our fate. So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late. — Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower

The 3-needle pines are a key that will unlock the doors of your mind. Don’t accept theories that discomport with and blind you to reality. Bear witness to the anomalies. Question authority. Be all that you can be.

28 Jan 2011, 1:03pm
by Dennis A.

I think that you are correct about the importance of fire in its influence on vegetation, whether it be fire from lightning or humans. However, I think there are places where successional changes are quite evident and Clementsian theory accurate, if you don’t assume static climax forest as the end point. In the Midwest, [American] beech-sugar maple forest cover millions of acres in some of the less flammable landscapes [yes they can and do burn during extreme drought]. I assume their presence reflects landscapes where there was a combination of moist climate, soils with adequate moisture-holding capacity, and less resources that could be improved by native American fire management. And in these hardwood landscapes, wetland and lake inclusions often had two or three needle pine indicating either lightning fires or pre-European human management or presence. I’ve seen the lightning fires along these lake edges, so that is one potential source.

I’ve also documented that in high resource areas, such as smaller lakes with a microclimate that extended growing season 2-3 weeks and also connected to chain of lakes connecting to Great Lakes, that Indian tribes farmed with fire, and that those fires set back “succession” in beech-sugar maple dominated forest for 150-200 years, but that the pine oaks stands are rapidly being replaced by beech, sugar maple, and other late successional species without fire. We know the hardwoods were dominant due to charcoal record, but stand understory and young overstory hardwoods are replacing red oak [insect mortality and light competition] and white pine [windthrow mortality].

In summary, I think that the role of human management is major, but not uniform across the landscape. In the same way that viewing every forest as moving toward Clementsian climax is inaccurate, viewing every vegetation type as owing its character largely to human management is equally inaccurate. While viewing the global vegetation with smoke-covered glasses will likely be more accurate than through Clementsian glasses, I would suggest testing the fire theory where it doesn’t appear to fit well.

Reply: Thank you, Dennis. We are in complete agreement. I do not contend that forest succession does not occur, merely that it’s “suspension” across millions of acres ought to be a red flag. The recognition of historical human influences is slowly creeping into forest science, but not at a satisfactory pace.

The type and degree of historical human influences, watershed by watershed, is a fertile ground for research. Or ought to be. IMHO the paucity (not the total lack) of such research indicates a timidity in our research institutions to deviate from established shibboleths. Every forest science school teaches Clementsian succession. How many do any research into historical human influences? The answer is very few and very little.

28 Jan 2011, 1:35pm
by Mike

Charles notes:

In addition to 3-needle pines, please include aspen, and oaks, etc.

28 Jan 2011, 2:05pm
by Larry H.

No one wants to talk about the historic, current and future forest conversions to lodgepole-dominated stands. When historical P. pine forests, choked with a lodgepole understory, are inevitably burned, everything will die and lodgepole will be the only trees that return. This will lock in the cycle of catastrophic wildfires where they have rarely happened in the past. Many Americans don’t care what kind of forests are on public lands. American Indians knew that such flammable forests threatened their very survival.

“Passive restoration” will also lock in these cyclic disasters. It is sad that ignorance is ruling the day, and is threatening to rule the week, month, year and century.

29 Jan 2011, 10:06am
by bear bait

As in all things, fire by human setting was random at times, and regular in other times. I have an interest, now just in my own mind, about what consequences did being mounted on horses have on fire regimes. I read a book on Crow Indian culture, and there was a passing statement that they, the reputed most accomplished horsemen in America, got mounted about 1732-34, and the horses were acquired from other Indians south of the Great Salt Lake. I also read once the Indian Bureau census of Nez Perce livestock for a period of close to thirty years, before mining and miners drove them to distraction and failed revolution. Always somewhere over 20,000 head of horses, cattle, and mules. Except one year where that dropped by half, and a notation that the numbers represented a foray into what is now Montana buffalo hunting, and the result of Crow horse thieving. When you have to feed that number of animals, I can consider that some burning was to create horse forage, in the two centuries or less that Indians had horses to care for. I do know that cottonwood bark kept plains horses alive in winter, and riparian cottonwood stands were bearing the brunt of too many horses and not enough feed in winter. All of which says to me that some of this broadcast burning had to be to create livestock, or wild game, forage areas. Man took it upon himself to make vegetation changes to nurture a new lifestyle. And late in the process.

Just my mind farts, and I have read no research that talks on either side of issue. I see “neglected” horse stories here in the paper each week. Horses are considered two and one half as needy as a cow-calf pair, in terms of forage need. The advent of the mounted Indian had to make some demands of the local landscape that could have been adjusted by setting fire and using the resulting ground level vegetation to support their mounts.

Right now I am reading Jack Nisbet’s “Mapmaker’s Eye”, David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau. He mentions that Thompson’s first time below Kettle Falls, he encountered salmon preserving Indians who said that deer are only obtainable by them if they have a drive and surrounded some and were able to kill a few. But that is an exhaustive process that was mostly unsuccessful, so they better spent their time catching and preserving fish. Fire as a part of the energy budgeting of people in obtaining whatever they need to survive. And we know that they did survive, and in places well. Without ferrous tools. With rudimentary agriculture, and in some instances, pretty sophisticated ag. And the land clearing was done by fire.

Fire was a tool in the kit, just like it was for local farmers until this last decade when urban political might put an end to it. Air pollution is doled out by political favor, and farmers are not enough in numbers to continue burning crop residues. Early Willamette Valley journalists noted that August was a particularly smoky month, and one was fraught with fear that he would not find sufficient forage for his horses until the horses found some in a riparian area. And it was burned like that all the way to the Sacramento Valley. The Indians west of the Cascades were not mounted, and their firing was for safety and to aid in selecting for plants and collecting acorns not having to fight leaf litter to do so.

So if you buy into the seral stage succession idea, the vast Douglas-fir forests on the West Coast would be an indication of not so distant fire regimes. Extensive burning, not all of which can in any way be attributed to natural firing by lightning. And the ages of the forests contains evidence which does reflect the noted and documented onset of disease and drastic population drops. The empty villages Lewis and Clark floated by on the Columbia River. The vast capacity of the moderate Willamette and other savanna valleys to feed and clothe, shelter, Indians, but so few found to be living there at the beginnings of European settlement. That would be an interesting book, piece of research: “Genocide and Forests”… aforestation patterns of the world attributed to genocide and disease.

If I remember correctly, Dr. Hansen’s work with pollen before he was assigned to be the Dean of the Graduate School at Oregon State proffered that lodgepole pine was the predominate species of conifer in the Willamette Valley less than 8,000 years ago. His pollen dating when truthed with carbon 14 dating, or vice versa, shows that climates change and so does the vegetation. Pines come, and pines go. Mostly determined by climate change and human activity in this country, in this time after the last Ice Age.

I seriously doubt if Interior Sec. Salazar’s conclusion that it only takes 5 years for “forests to reclaim wilderness quality” has one iota of scientific basis. If we can’t recognize vegetation patterns created by human set fire, how can we recognize “recovery of wilderness qualities” in half a decade? Both have to have the support of the same scientific community. Or erlse this forest, habitat, and site quality issue has always been about politics, and science is just a whore for money the politicians can provide: a meaningless perpetual motion machine of political value, used when needed.

30 Jan 2011, 7:13pm
by Scott A.

Mike, You are quite right about the conditions in which pines replant themselves after wildfires. Today on the drive back from Yellow Pine, I was admiring our faithful USFS public servant’s handy work in successfully taking our forests down to bedrock on the South Fork.

I was noticing how much faster the snow is melting in the blackened forests vs surviving patches of green forests just down the road. My vehicle is equipped with a thermometer….it showed almost 6 degrees warmer where the trees had been removed by fire, vs the natural green remaining forest. I noted both sections were comparable, about 5,000 ft elevation, and BOTH faced southwest. This will likely have grave impacts on the snowpacks for years to come, and farming and city water systems downstream. It will likely also increase flooding, sedimentation, and run off from the blackened hillsides which melt off much faster than the green forests. MANY of the blackened trees are starting to fall and are leaving huge open hillsides with no shade on the snow packs which is further increasing the speeds at which the snow is melting.



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