Smoke is in the air everywhere, from hazardous to moderate on the air quality scale. Everyone is waiting for the rains to give us back the fresh air we depend on for our health. But the rains will not give us back our forests. Or will they?
I have hiked for days in Oregon through areas of burned forest, called snag forests, lamenting the loss of green trees, the endless sticks on the horizon, the small size of evergreens even five years after a fire. How much evergreen forest will we lose this year? Climate change doesn’t look good.
Listening to the radio while driving North on I-5 and pondering my options for a fall hike under these smoky conditions, I heard an interview with a wildlife biologist on Community Radio. The radio interviewer mentioned the John Muir project. The name of John Muir always grabs my attention. What did they do this time to preserve the wilderness in his name? “Snag forests are a good thing” the biologist said. A good thing? All those dead trees a good thing? She continued: only 2% of our forests are snag forest and that percentage isn’t enough to provide habitat for a multitude of species who depend on the dead and decaying trees for nesting, depend on the new plant life that erupts after a fire, depend on the food chain provided by insects, small and larger critters who live in hollow trees and under decaying wood, who bore in the dry wood, and eat the beetles who lay their eggs in the boring tunnels.
The current practice of harvesting the snags decreases biodiversity, even with re-planting. The monoculture of re-planting doesn’t provide the environment many plant, bird and small animal species need to survive. A good forest is a messy forest, even though it’s counter intuitive. People like order. But a groomed forest as I experienced walking in Germany, doesn’t allow for the greater diversity a wilderness forest provides.
I listened and it all made sense. Nature takes care of itself if we leave it alone. The enormous wilderness I love can survive these fires, as threatening and devastating as they may seem. I learned from this interview that green trees burn hotter than dead trees and allow fires to spread faster. Patches of snag forests halt wild fires or at least slow them down.
The Jan 2003 issue of Science published a research paper by graduate student Dan Donato. Dan made a case against the efficacy of post wildfire logging, and quoted his research of the Biscuit Fire in Oregon. Sarah Gilman in an article on the value of post fire logging in the High Country news, Feb 2006, says: “The new study is part of a growing body of literature that questions the ecological value of post-fire logging. Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist with the World Wildlife Fund, says that there is an emerging consensus among scientists that logging burned areas can exacerbate soil damage and erosion, harm waterways, increase fire danger, and hinder natural forest recovery by killing seedlings. More importantly, it removes the big dead trees that contribute to habitat diversity and critical forest processes such as nutrient cycling.”
What You Can Do
The current forest practices haven’t caught up with the new science and snag forests in the Sierras are still being harvested. It is important that the new science gets out there, that new forest management policies are created. We can help by spreading the word, by writing to our representatives, and by sharing the information about a film the John Muir project supports, “Searching for Gold Spot, the Wild after Wildfire”, an Indie movie which documents the science of snag forests and the rare black backed woodpeckers. This movie will debut at the Monterey Birdwatchers festival September 23. https://www.facebook.com/Searching-for-Gold-Spot-Black-backed-woodpeckers-the-Wild-After-Wildfire-1676889475900932/?hc_ref=ARQZcZlatACRz4ENvLRzCqc9JIeBK72MeSnZYAt0REjEatIX-05-UeuYjy0YbLe0iAA&fref=nf
You can watch a trailer of the movie on U-tube to get you enthused.
This is not a movie to save a rare bird. This is a movie to help us understand how wildfire is a good and necessary part of the big cycle of natural change.
To know this helped me overcome my dread and despair in this smoky part of summer. I look forward to seeing rare bird species and appreciate the large cycle of life, when next I hike through a snag forest. I will let my representatives know what needs to be done with our forests. You can too!