FIRE & FOREST
|TABLE 1. TREES/ACRE IN PRESETTLEMENT PONDEROSA PINE FORESTS
(Woolsey 1911, Lang and Stewart 1909, Cooper 1960, Pearson 1950, Rummell 1951)
|LOCATION||DESCRIPTION||TREES / ACRE||COUNT METHOD|
|Sitgreaves National Forest||Maximum volume||31||> 4" dbh|
|Coconino National Forest||Maximum volume
Average trees/acre, well watered, frequently very dense
|> 10" dbh
> 9" dbh
> 12" dbh
> 6" dbh
> 6" dbh
Average trees/acre, southeast exposure, dry soils, rather open
|> 16" dbh
> 12" dbh
> 6" dbh
> 6" dbh
|Prescott National Forest||Average trees/acre, open & dry situation||28||> 4" dbh|
|Santa Fe National Forest||Maximum volume||36||> 4" dbh|
|Carson National Forest||Maximum volume
|> 7" dbh
> 4" dbh
|Cibola National Forest||Maximum volume||23||> 4" dbh|
|Alamo National Forest||Maximum volume||47||> 4" dbh|
|Gila National Forest||Fully stocked
|> 4" dbh
> 4" dbh
> 4" dbh
|Maylay Gap, Mescalero Reservation||Open and parklike||317||1 - 14" dbh|
|Central Washington||Open and parklike||134||all|
That's just in one 25 year period. Intensive logging in the preceding seven decades and between 1986 and 1996 has reduced the Southwest's old growth by about 88%. Ponderosa pine old growth, formerly the most common and most commercially valuable old growth, has decline by about 98%. The majority of existing old growth is in the relatively small portion of the landscape covered by mixed-conifer forests. It has survived because of the listing of Mexican spotted owl as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and attempts to list the northern goshawk as well The owl, in fact, was listed primarily because the Forest Service planed to liquidate the mixed-conifer old growth after it realized that there were not enough large pines to sustain the big tree timber industry (USFWS 1993).
The Forest Service uses a remarkable accounting method to assert that the number of "large trees remained virtually unchanged" between 1962 and 1986 (Johnson 1995). This outrageous conclusion is made possible by defining a "large tree" to be 17" dbh or larger. A 17" tree, however, is not large, it is smaller than average. The average ponderosa pine on the Gila and Coconino National Forests in 1905 was 19.3" Rixon 1905, Lieberg et al. 1905). The average Douglas-fir was 23" dbh. The average pine on the Apache National Forest was 18" dbh, while trees on the Kaibab National Forest were so large that trees under 18" dbh were not measured (Plumer 1904, Lang and Stewart 1909). Trees on the San Carlos Reservation were not even considered merchantable timber if not over 24" dbh in 1910 (August and Gomez 1984).
In the early 1900's, "mature" ponderosa pines were defined as 200 years old, 300 year old trees were considered "veterans." Today, the Forest Service defines 100 year old trees "old growth."
By 1962, when the Forest Service began region- wide surveys, the forests were already highly degraded, the very largest trees being already logged off. The rule of early forestry was to exclusively and rapidly cut all the largest trees (Drake 1910, Woolsey 1911, Moore 1912). The large trees were eulogized as far back as 1891:
"What was the forest primeval at one time has since been raided by the rapacious forces of commerce, and at one point, Flagstaff, favorably located in the timber belt, has since been established by the Ayers-Riorda saw and planing mill, equipped with every modern appliance for the destruction of these old giants whose heads had nodded on the breezes of centuries...I cannot repress a sentiment of regret that the demands of civilization have caused the denudation of so many square miles of our forests" (Bourke 1891).
Noting that much of the Coconino National had already been cut over by 1949, Long Valley District Ranger James Egan still maintained that "to cut over the remaining area of virgin forest as fast as is economically feasible is good forestry" (Eagan 1949). This was done with such dedication that by the 1970's Forest Service researchers warned that "Continuing the present removal rate would require heavy cutting of small diameter trees as old growth is liquidated...The present level of sawtimber cut cannot be maintained" (USFS 1977). By the late 1980's large ponderosa pine timber had largely run out. The Lakeside District on the Apache- Sitgreaves National Forest had no old growth remaining at all. Pressure was still being applied, however, to produce more volume. The District Ranger complained that the volume just did not exist, that forest indicator species were declining, and that there would be nothing left for the future (Collins 1989). The search for more big trees led out of the cutover ponderosa pine forest, into the mixed-conifer forest, and eventually to the listing of the Mexican spotted owl as a threatened species.
A review of Forest Service environmental assessments on the Gila and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests revealed that even under a generous definition, only 12% of the landscape is in an old growth state today, with only 2% being old growth ponderosa pine (Suckling 1995).
OVERGRAZING – A CONVENIENTLY FORGOTTEN THREAT TO FOREST HEALTH
"The acquisition of horses by Native Americans in the 1700's and resulting environmental impacts was but a small prelude to the hundreds of thousands of domestic livestock brought by the early Euro-American settlers in the mid- to late- 1800's (Irwin et. al 1993). The rapid increase in domestic animal numbers was tantamount to a population explosion of an introduced species with no population control" (Covington et. al 1994).
Native grasses are keystone species in Ponderosa pine ecosystems. They prevent erosion, facilitate water infiltration, provide wildlife habitat, control fire movement, and prevent excessive numbers of trees from becoming established. Severe overgrazing of the forest is one of the most critical threats to forest health (Belsky and Blumenthal 1995, Morgan and Suckling 1995). Turn of the century foresters noted severe overgrazing had already resulted in erosion, flooding, and large denuded areas (Rixon 1904, Leiberg et al. 1905). One noted that overgrazing resulted in the 60 species of native grass being eventually replaced by exotic weedy plants (Plummer 1904).
By the 1920's it was evident that the removal of grass had resulted in a marked decrease in forest fire frequency, and increased shrub and tree numbers (Leopold 1924). Under natural conditions, grass is the primary medium through which forest fires ignite and spread. Removing grass densities resulted in greatly decreased incidence of fire. The lack of fire, in turn, led to more pine seedlings surviving and growing into poles. The arrival of cattle in the Southwest has been closely correlated with declining fire frequency- long before fire suppression policies or even the creation of the Forest Service (Savage and Swetnam 1990). Proposed changes in fire suppression and prescribed burn policies (USDI/USDA 1995) therefore, are unlikely to be successful unless overgrazing is simultaneously reduced.
Fire kills already established pine seedlings. Dense grass cover, however, prevents the seedlings from establishing in the first place (Denham 1959, Tackle and Roy 1953, Roy 1953, Sowder 1959, Rummell 1951, Madany and West 1983, Zimmerman and Neuenschwander 1984). Regardless of fire frequency or suppression tactics, healthy grass cover will prevent excessive pine reproduction and concomitant "forest health" problems. This has led researchers to conclude that overgrazing, not fire suppression is the primary cause of excessive tree densities in the West (Rummell 1951, Madany and West 1983, Zimmerman and Neuenschwander 1984).
The Forest Service usually portrays overgrazing as a problem of the past. While it is true that numbers of cattle on the National Forest have decreased since the turn of the century, it is also true that overgrazing remains a perennial problem. Cattle numbers and allowed forage utilization rates are too high to support healthy forest ecosystems. Zimmerman and Neuenschwander (1984) found that over dense forests began to return to normal fire patterns following the removal of cattle.
The conspicuous absence of limitations on grazing in the current Salvage Rider and the proposed "forest health" bills of Senators Domenici and Kyl are a clear indication that the intent is not to improve the health of the ecosystem, it is to increase the volume of timber produced. This is why the timber and cattle industries contributed so heavily to both senator's election campaigns.
LOGGING IS A MAJOR CAUSE OF WILDFIRE
A famous study by the Southwest's first Regional silviculturalist, Theodore Woolsey, Jr., is often cited by the timber industry as proof that destructive crown fires were rare in pre- settlement ponderosa pine forests (Woolsey 1911). Never cited, however, is his additional remark that
"it is after logging that the damage from fires is greatest, on account of the inflammable and unburned slash."
Logging operations generates enormous volumes of unused limbs, tree tops and small trees. These are a major source of fuel loading. Wildfires flair in slash piles and become very hot and difficult to control (Agee 1989, Olson and Fahnestock 1955, Pearson 1950). In 1994, a record fire year, logged over areas burned intensely throughout the west (Huff et al. 1995, DellaSala et al. 1995b). One low intensity fire in Washington state grew to 2,000 acres within 24 hours of moving into an area of heavy slash (USFWS 1994). Logged over areas spawn the most destructive fires in pine forests:
"Where the cut has been heavy and the resulting debris correspondingly large, all the difficulties of fire fighting are proportionally increased. All kinds of waste material left in the woods supply food for the flames, but the leaving of large, unlopped softwood tops on the ground adds enormously to the fury of a brush fire and greatly prolongs the length of time that slash remains a menace to its own and surrounding areas....Fires on cut-over lands usually kill all standing timber left on the area burned, as well as all the young growth" (Chittenden 1905).
"Within the last sixty years, however, fires have done little damage to the virgin timber, although prevalent on the cut-over areas...Fire on these areas is of the hottest character, and once started is extremely difficult and often almost impossible to check" (Cooper and Kelleter 1907).
Some of the Southwest's most devastating wildfires occurred in timber sales.
Horseshoe Fire – 1996
Timber harvest related fires has been a continual problem on the Coconino National Forest (USFS 1974). This year's Horseshoe Fire is only the latest example. The sale operator, Stone Forest Industries, piled and burned slash residues in February, 1996. Smoldering beneath a protective layer of dirt, the slash suddenly burst into flames in mid-May when the forest reached a critically dry and windy state. The fire burned 8,100 acres before being extinguished. The Horseshoe Fire burned through the slash and trees of a freshly thinned forest. It is a warning that thinning is not the fire panacea many would like to believe it is.
Chino Fire - 1996
This 8,000 acre fire on New Mexico's Mescalero Reservation reached tremendous temperatures in logging slash. House sized slash piles defied all fire fighting efforts.
The Dude Fire - 1990
The Southwest's most infamous wildfire, the Dude Fire burned 28,000 acres in 1990, killing six firefighters, and raising a subdivision and the historic Zane Grey Cabin. It quickly became a political lightning rod for timber interests. Gerald Freeman, President of Stone Forest Industries blamed environmentalists and lack of logging for the fire:
"When professional Forester's recommended thinning of National Forest stands to propagate the growth of ponderosa pine...What happened? Preservationists said 'no' we want to keep old growth, natural forests. What happened next? ...a devastating fire rushed through 45 miles of the Tonto National Forest and ruined millions of board feet of timber..The deadly 'Dude' blaze burned trees that were up to 250 years old...consumed grasses and shrubs...and drove off wildlife. But more importantly, cost six lives and wiped out several communities...and left a hundred homeless. Proper forest management could have, would have...prevented that. How? Logging roads would have given access and escape routes for firefighters. Dead and dying timber would have been removed and undergrowth cleared..."(quoted in Montiak 1995).
Jim Mattsen, of Kaibab Forest Products, called the destruction "typical of what our unmanaged forests have become" (quoted in Tolan 1991).
Arizona State Land Commissioner, Jean Hassell, blamed the Endangered Species Act for preventing thinning operations. Lack of thinning, he said, resulted in the loss of 28,000 acre of Mexican spotted owl habitat in the fire (Hassell 1993).
A Forest Service summary, however, revealed that the Dude Fire area was anything but unmanaged (USFS 1991). Most of the old growth was taken out in the late 1880's. The remaining was logged off in the 1940's and early 1980's. Far from being kept out of the woods by environmentalists, the timber industry did not even bid on three timber sales offered in the area in the late 1980's - there was simply no valuable timber left to harvest. Realizing the timber industry would not bid on a commercial timber sale in the area, the Tonto National Forest considered offering it as a non- commercial land service contract.
The Dude Fire was not the first major wildfire on this ravaged country. The 2,500 acre Robert's Mesa fire burned through in 1961 and the 7,200 acre Hatchery Fire burned through in 1968. Both served as fire breaks limiting the spread of the Dude Fire.
Dudley Lake Fire - 1956
Scorching 21,000 acres of ponderosa pine in 1956, the Dudley Lake Fire is the largest wildfire to date on the Coconino National Forest. It was started by a logging operation in a dry, windy season, and was fueled by a heavy accumulation of logging slash (Schaefer 1957).
HOT BURNS, COOL BURNS
This primer has focused on Ponderosa pine forests because they are the dominant forest type in the inland West. They are also the most degraded forests because both co-dominant plant communities (pine and grass) have been commercially exploited for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, however, generalizations about ponderosa pine forests are commonly attributed to mixed-conifer forest as well.
Under natural conditions, fires in ponderosa pine forests are frequent and cool burning. They rarely harm the larger, thick-barked trees or cause stand replacement. Mixed-conifer forest, however, naturally burn hot and heavy, but not as often. They are dense, canopied forests, periodically subject to stand replacing fire. Following such fire, aspen often dominates the stand for several decades before the Douglas and true firs return. Aspen regeneration is dependent upon stand replacement fires.
The hysteria generated around "catastrophic" Ponderosa pine fires often spills over into unwarranted concern over mixed-conifer fires. The 20,000 acre HB Fire in the Gila National Forest is a case in point. The 2,000 acres hot burn was deemed catastrophic by the Forest Service and blamed on an unnaturally high tree densities of 100 trees per acre. But 100 trees per acre in mixed-conifer stands is perfectly natural. Lang and Stewart recorded an average of 195 fir trees per acre on the Kaibab National Forest in 1909.
The stand replacing fire was also perfectly natural. The adjacent peak experienced a large hot fire in 1900 and is now covered by a heathy, mature aspen forest. Since mixed-conifer forests may be expanding in the Southwest, while aspen forests are definitely declining, there is little cause for alarm when large wildfires cause conifers to be replaced by aspen.
Sudden concern by the Forest Service and the timber industry over the survival of the Mexican spotted owl and northern goshawk also appear exaggerated. Owls and goshawks have returned unharmed to forests which suffered large wildfires on numerous occasions (see for example, Stacey and Hodgeson 1995).
The confusion of pine and fir ecology, and the resultant exaggerated claims of tree densities and fire damage, appears motivated by the need to justify salvage logging plans. Eagle Peak was scheduled for logging as soon as the HB fire started. The Forest Service claimed that the fire would not have been so destructive had the forest been previously logged down to "natural" densities, that post-fire salvage logging would reduce fuel loading thereby decreasing the damage of the next fire, and that it would speed recovery. That adjacent Buzzard Peak recovered very well on its own after the 1900 fire was not discussed. Buzzard Peak recovered because calls to salvage log the burn in order to prevent future fires (Rixon 1905) went unheeded. The very same reasons are not being used to promote logging of Eagle Peak.
When analyzing the effects and causes of forest fires in the inland West, a distinction must be made between chaparral, ponderosa, mixed- conifer, and spruce-fir forests. They grow, burn, and regenerate differently.
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|Photo © John Villinski,
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