By Michael Howell
The first in a series of lectures on Fire and Forest Management was held at the North Valley Public Library in Stevensville last week. The guest speakers were Carl Fiedler and Steve Arno, who took turns discussing the history and role of fire in the Bitterroot, how fire behaves in managed versus unmanaged forests, and what alternative futures of living with fire might look like. The two of them have written a book on subject entitled “Ponderosa – People, Fire, and the West’s Most Iconic Tree,” published by Mountain Press Publishing Company.
In the book, the two men recount the history of humans among the ponderosa pines, the historical role of fire, how and why the forest has changed, and what people can do to restore the forest to its former glory.
In the past, in the mountainous northwest generally and in the Bitterroot Valley in particular, the mountain slopes were covered with old growth ponderosa pine forests. In these woods there was little undergrowth and the forest floor was carpeted inches deep in long ponderosa pine needles. When dry these needles burn intensely and fast. But the older ponderosas, with their protective scales of bark, generally survive the fires.
This distinctive forest type dominated the Bitterroot up until the early 1900s. In 1897, the Daly Mill was only cutting big ponderosas. At about the same time, the Forest Service adopted the policy of suppressing all fires. What followed was a changing forest type along with a changing fire regime. It was no longer just pine needles burning periodically through old growth fire resistant stands of ponderosa. As the old ponderosa were removed, other species moved in such as Douglas fir and lodgepole and the fire regime changed to follow suit and includes, historically, three basic categories: Understory fires, Mixed fires, and Stand Replacing fires.
According to Arno, in the inland Cascades historically understory fires comprised 40% of the fires on the forest land, mixed fires comprised another 40% and the Stand Replacement fires comprised the remaining 20%, but now only 15% are understory, 35% are mixed, and half of all fires on the forest are now Stand Replacing.
According to Fiedler, there is no silver bullet for addressing the current predicament. But there are many things that can be done based on past study and experimentation. Surface fuels can be reduced. Tree density and canopy cover can be reduced. Through trimming the height to live crown cover can be increased. Preserve big trees of fire resistance species. Most importantly, Fiedler quoted a timberman named George Hoxie who said in 1970, “We must count on fire to help in practical forestry….as a servant…[otherwise] it will surely be master in a very short time.”
Fiedler, who has taught training courses across the country on ponderosa pine management, fire and forest restoration to government and tribal agencies, said that in the mid-1800s Europe, in response to the stripping of forests by the peasant population, created a forestry program that was designed to bring forests back after having been denuded in an area that had wet summers. He said this type of plantation forestry worked ok in the east, but the west only gets one third that moisture and only a quarter of what the south gets.
“Forest plantations don’t work well here,” said Fiedler.
The next scheduled speaker in the lecture series for November 15 at 6 p.m. is Jim Burchfield, a forester and social scientist who served as dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation at the U of M from 2008-2015. He will discuss how forest management has evolved since the National Forests were created and how citizen involvement in forest management is the way forward to managing our natural resources in a democracy.