A severely burned forest is not a “destroyed” forest, but rather a habitat restored.
That is not something you are likely to hear during or after the next large forest fire in the Sierra Nevada. It certainly wasn’t during the 2013 Rim Fire in Yosemite and the Stanislaus National Forest. It should have been, however, because the science is clear – severely burned forests provide some of rarest and most biodiverse habitats on earth.
Severely burned forests should be left alone, protected, and allowed to thrive without our meddling. This is why we are joining with several other environmental organizations to stop “salvage” logging and “reforestation” projects in the forest burned by the Rim Fire. The Forest Service will make a decision about what they will to do in a few weeks. Stay tuned.
1. Severely burned forests provide rich habitats.
Why? Because, as described by wildlife biologist Monica Bond, “These post-fire, complex early seral forests are rich in post-disturbance legacies (e.g., large live and dead trees, downed logs), and post-fire vegetation (e.g., native fire-following shrubs, flowers, natural conifer regeneration), that provide important habitat for countless species and differ from those created by logging (e.g., salvage or pre-fire thinning) that are deficient in biological legacies and many other key ecological attributes.”
Location: Tahoe National Forest, after the 2008 American River Complex Fire.
2. Severely burned forests are rich in bird life.
Ornithologist Dr. Richard Hutto looks into the Rim Fire forest canopy for black-backed woodpeckers, a rare species that depends on severely burned forests for its survival. Note the green trees in the background. Location: Stanislaus National Forest.
For more on the black-backed woodpecker:
3. Severely burned forests support a wonderful variety of insects.
The burned forest restores a rare forest habitat that is rich with life. For example, as shown above, pulses of defensive sap emerge from where bark beetles have entered to lay their eggs. As the beetle grubs grow, they provide food for numerous woodpecker species as well as serving as hosts for a variety of predatory wasps such as the unique, red-headed species shown here (she is searching for beetle grubs upon which to lay her eggs).
Location: Stanislaus National Forest.
4. Severely burned forests still have lots of living trees, it just takes time for them to say hello.
About a year after the 2013 Rim Fire, many of the trees classified as killed in severely burned areas are “flushing” with new needles. Although some foresters claim that, “These trees are dead, they just know it yet,” Ecologist Dr. Chad Hanson has found that many of these so-called dead trees survive if left alone.
5. Natural regeneration is everywhere.
Conifer seedlings emerging from the forest floor in an area of the Rim Fire scheduled for “salvage” logging and eventually “reforestation.” According to official forestry protocols, this high-severity burned area should not exhibit conifer regeneration. Ironically, “reforestation” efforts would likely destroy these little seedlings.
6. If left alone, severely burned forests are fun to watch as they explode with new life over the years.
This rare, post-fire forest was saved and allowed to grow thanks to a lawsuit filed by the John Muir Project led by Chad Hanson. The suit prevented the US Forest Service from “salvage” logging the area.
Location: Tahoe National Forest, after the 2008 American River Complex Fire.
7. Shrubs and trees live together in harmony.
In a close-up of the forest floor in the previous photo, conifers and shrubs like manzanita naturally establish a healthy, biodiverse habitat. Had this been treated as usual, the area would have been sprayed with herbicides to kill the native shrubs and other naturally regenerating plant species. Then nursery-grown conifer seedlings would have been planted to establish an artificial tree plantation. Such plantations represent major fire hazards throughout the Sierra Nevada because they create extremely dense concentrations of “fuel.” Much of the Rim Fire burned intensely due to such tree farms.
8. Severely burned forests provide habitat where it might be least expected!
A nest of a Townsend’s Solitaire in the roots of a tree blown down after the 2003 Mineral-Primm Fire near Missoula, Montana.
Photo taken by Dr. Richard Hutto.
9. Severely burned forests still have patches of green.
Nearly all forest fires leave behind patches of unburned forest that act as nurseries for new plants (the seeds are spread by animals and wind) and add to the diversity of habitat found in post-fire forests. Much of this area is proposed for “salvage” logging.
Location: Stanislaus National Forest at the southern portion of the Rim Fire.
10. The usual alternative to letting severely burned forests alone is an ecological disaster.
Land owned by Sierra Pacific Industries within the Stanislaus National Forest provides an example of what would happen if the US Forest Service goes ahead with its forest “restoration” plan (“salvage” logging, herbicides, tree farms).
11. Severe fire is a natural part of forest ecosystems.
There is a common misconception that any fire that kills more than a few small patches of trees is overly “severe,” “unnatural,” and “bad,” and needs to be prevented at all costs. This perspective helped to generate unsupportable statements concerning the Rim Fire – the fire “destroyed” the forest, the fire “killed everything,” severely burned patches over 40 acres are “unnatural,” and the fire was due to unnatural “fuel” (habitat) build up. Nature says otherwise. And the science is beginning to challenge these views as well.
Photo taken by Nathan Serrato.
For more about forest fires, please visit our webpage here:
The research questioning the notion that high severity fires in the Sierra Nevada are “unnatural:”
“Our results suggest that wildfire burning under extreme weather conditions, as is often the case with fires that escape initial attack, can produce large areas of high-severity fire even in fuels-reduced forests with restored fire regimes.“
– Lydersen, J.M., M.P. North, B.M. Collins. 2014. Severity of an uncharacteristically large wildfire, the Rim Fire, in forests with relatively restored frequent fire regimes. Forest Ecology and Management 328: 326-334.
“Proposals to reduce fuels and fire severity would actually reduce, not restore, historical forest heterogeneity important to wildlife and resiliency. Sierran mixed-conifer forests are inherently dangerous places to live, which cannot be changed without creating artificial forests over large land areas. However, people can adapt to fires by channeling development to safer areas and modifying ignition zones near houses and communities to survive fire.”
– Baker, W.L. 2014. Historical forest structure and fire in Sierran mixed-conifer forests reconstructed from General Land Office survey data. Ecosphere 5: 1-70
“The rate of high-severity fire has been lower since 1984 than the estimated historical rate. Responses of fire behaviour to climate change and fire suppression may be more complex than assumed …Management could shift from a focus on reducing extent or severity of fire in wildlands to protecting human communities from fire.“
– Hanson C.T. and D.C. Odion. 2014. Is fire severity increasing in the Sierra Nevada, California, USA? International Journal of Wildland Fire 23: 1-8.
“Over 40 years, habitat loss would be far greater than with no thinning because, under a “best case” scenario, thinning reduced 3.4 and 6.0 times more dense, late-successional forest than it prevented from burning in high-severity fire in the Klamath and dry Cascades, respectively.”
Odion, D.C., C.T. Hanson, D.A. DellaSala, W.L. Baker, M.L. Bond. 2014. Effects of fire and commercial thinning on future habitat of the northern spotted owl. The Open Ecology Journal 7: 37-51.