Studies Show Severe Fires Are Natural and Ecologically Beneficial to Sierra Nevada Forests
ASHLAND, Ore., Aug. 12, 2014 /PRNewswire/ — Two recently published scientific studies add to a growing body of research on the ecological importance of forest fires, even severe ones, in the western U.S, particularly California’s Sierra region.
One study, published in Natural Areas Journal (http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.3375/043.034.0317), documented the ecological importance of forest fires for numerous plants and wildlife, including rare and threatened ones. The other, published in Ecosphere (http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/ES14-00046.1), used historical records to show that fires in the Sierra are burning in size and intensity similar to the way fires once did.
According to Dominick DellaSala, Chief Scientist of Geos Institute, “Post-fire landscapes are often falsely portrayed as ‘moonscapes,’ but they actually have levels of plant and wildlife richness comparable to what we see in the region’s old-growth forests.”
DellaSala’s study, “Complex Early Seral Forests of the Sierra Nevada: What Are They and How Can They Be Managed for Ecological Integrity?” showed that post-fire landscapes are rich in large, dead trees (snags), which connect a regenerating forest to the old-growth forest that develops over time via the process of forest succession. Wildlife depend on these snags, including the Black-backed Woodpecker, now being considered for federal listing due to losses of its post-fire habitat from logging. California and Northern Spotted Owls also forage in post-fire landscapes.
DellaSala’s findings are relevant to controversial post-fire logging projects that follow most forest fires. Last January, DellaSala co-authored a letter to the Forest Service, signed by over 200 scientists, requesting the agency to refrain from massive logging following the 2013 Rim fire on the Stanislaus National Forest. DellaSala added, “Post-fire logging and tree planting remove the very components that forests need to regenerate.”
Another study by William Baker, Emeritus Professor of Ecology at University of Wyoming, entitled “Historical forest structure and fire in Sierran mixed-conifer forests reconstructed from General Land Office Survey data,” found that severe fires have long been a natural feature of Sierra Nevada mixed-conifer forests.
Dr. Baker stated, “Fires in Sierran mixed-conifers once did, and still do, burn in a pattern of mixed severities. This includes large patches of fire-killed trees, up to several thousand acres, which burn as part of the natural fire cycle in this region.”
Baker tested prevailing assumptions about uncharacteristic fires by examining the U.S. government’s General Land Office surveys from 1865 to 1885, to determine the forest composition recorded by early surveyors as it related to historical fire influences. His results showed that there is less high-severity fire in Sierra forests now than there was during historical times. Logging proposals to reduce fuels and fire severity would actually set back, not restore, historical forest heterogeneity that is so important to wildlife and fire resiliency.
> Link to “Fireside Chat” presentation about ecological benefits of fires:
SOURCE Geos Institute