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home : columns : columns May 23, 2016

8/6/2014 9:32:00 AM
Yellowstone offers lessons in fire
The Yellowstone fires of 1988 have resulted in dense thickets of lodgepole pine, such as this example of what the future may bring for burned-over forests in the Sisters area. photo by Craig Eisenbeis
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The Yellowstone fires of 1988 have resulted in dense thickets of lodgepole pine, such as this example of what the future may bring for burned-over forests in the Sisters area. photo by Craig Eisenbeis

By Craig Eisenbeis

Would most people consider Yellowstone National Park closely related to our local ecosystem? Probably not; but, when you think about it, Yellowstone is just down at the end of our recently rebuilt and repaved Cascade Avenue. Simply follow Cascade Avenue (Highway 20) east for 728 miles, and you will arrive at Old Faithful. It's as easy as that; no other directions required!

Central Oregon's relationship to Yellowstone is closer than you might think in other ways, as well. A quarter century ago nearly half of Yellowstone National Park's forests were burned in a summer-long marathon of fires, and what is unfolding there now is probably a harbinger of what is to come here in our local burned forests.

Regardless of where you stand on the "let it burn" or "fight it with everything" spectrum, today's Yellowstone forests offer a clear look into the future of our own burned-over forests. About 80 percent of Yellowstone is forested, and fully 80 percent of those forests are lodgepole pine - the same tree that is common in many of the mid-elevation forests that have burned in the Sisters area in the last decade or so.

Visitor center programs at Yellowstone purport to weigh the pros and cons of letting the fires burn, but tend to come down fairly heavily on the self-congratulatory "we-were-right" viewpoint. And, truth be told, Yellowstone is once again very green and exploding with new life. Unfortunately, though, much of today's Yellowstone looks like a poorly managed tree farm.

To be fair, however, today's silvicultural situation in Yellowstone is exactly what was predicted and expected. When an entire forest burns - especially one that is predominantly lodgepole pine - what follows is an entirely homogeneous regenerated forest. The result, unfortunately, is something that looks more like an overgrown garden than a wild park.

Only scattered sections at Yellowstone experienced a mosaic or mixed burn; most of it just burned. Twenty-six years later, what predominates are dense thickets of 12- to 20-foot-high lodgepole super-saplings punctuated by a few standing snags that are yet to fall. Probably 90-95 percent of the dead trees have fallen.

Without active forest management, such reborn forests take about 300 years to mature or begin to show much diversification. Unburned Yellowstone forests, especially in the south and southwest portions of the park provide examples of what the forest looked like before the fires and what it may look like again in the far-distant future.

Locally, we can expect similar dense jungles of young lodgepoles to impede hikers and skiers for generations; and those conditions are already beginning to appear. This pattern is particularly apparent in portions of the B&B burn and will soon become apparent in the Pole Creek burn. A very active program of forest and trail management will long be necessary to provide access to the slowly maturing forests.

Some of our local areas do have genuine "mosaic" burns that will permit a richer and more varied forest to develop. Wherever fir and hemlock trees enter the mix, especially at higher elevations, the resulting forest is less homogeneous and less likely to become an impenetrable and unmanageable thicket of scraggly poles.

There are a couple of misconceptions about the Yellowstone fires. First, the fires were not allowed to burn completely unchecked. At one point, more than 25,000 firefighters were fighting the blazes; but the "let it burn naturally" philosophy was undoubtedly responsible for allowing the situation to get so far out of hand. When only 2 percent of the nation is preserved in national parks, it's just plain silly to allow a significant portion of that tiny preserved total to be destroyed.

A second misconception is that National Park Service policies have not changed since 1988. In fact, new fire management policies were enacted just four years later - lightning-fast action for a government bureaucracy - and further updated in 2004. In a nutshell, while natural fires may still be permitted by the park service to burn, they will be closely monitored as to whether or not the circumstances conform to fire management goals that have been formally established. Specifically, man-made fires and fires that are determined to exceed certain strict criteria will be actively suppressed. Lessons have been learned.

Further, national park land management employees have initiated programs to regularly remove dead and hazardous fuels from forest areas, as prioritized by a Hazard Fuels Reduction Plan. In short, forest management in national parks closely resembles forest management practices that we see in the national forests surrounding us here in Sisters, including thinning and prescribed burning.

National parks and national forests have distinctly different purposes, and many people fail to understand that. The parks, administered principally by the Department of the Interior, are set aside as parks. On the other hand - and despite what some forest advocates would have us believe - national forests were set aside for the purpose of sustained national economic development and, appropriately enough, are managed by the Department of Agriculture for sustained crop growth.

Regardless, the formula for creating and sustaining healthy forests is essentially the same in both forest systems, and active forest management will be required indefinitely. Half of Yellowstone's mature forests and many thousands of acres of our local forests have been lost to several generations. If you did not see them before they went up in flames, you never will. They are lost even to our grandchildren's grandchildren.

The lessons are there. Fortunately, there is increasing evidence that we may be learning them. Current management practices are building on the experience of the last century. The bottom line, however, is that forest management must become the province of forest managers rather than that of courtrooms and the whims of eco-fantasists.

Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2014
Article comment by: Ricks Mattson

Another great article from Craig, his columns are my favorite as he provides excellent insight into many of our off beat treasures. I am an avid hiker and I learn something from each and every one of his columns. Thank you very much Craig !! How about an article on Robinson Lake? I discovered Robinson Lake 30 years ago and it is a very special place.

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