Forests, Fires & Elk
by David Stalling

Cutting trees is a sensitive, complex issue, a difficult act to defend. Like hunting elk. And like hunting elk, it can be done well or badly. But what is good logging? Is it logging that makes a profit? Logging that creates forage for elk? Logging that looks nice to people when it's done?

To Steve Arno, good logging means working within the bounds of natural systemsemulating natural processes, maintaining all components of a healthy forest, from elk to the grasses and forbs that sustain them. And given the forestry practices of the past 200 years, a little good logging now may actually be necessary to restore and maintain healthy forests. This is especially so in places that evolved with frequent fires, like the ponderosa pine forest around Steve Arno's home.

Arno, a researcher with the Forest Service's Intermountain Fire sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Montana, has studied the ecology of forests and fires for more than 30 years. During that time, he's helped hone methods to restore and maintain healthy forests using logging and fire. His own land--60 acres in the foothills of Montana's Bitterroot Mountains--provides a showcase for these ideas.

An open stand of ponderosa. pines now towers over a forest floor covered with grass and scattered clumps of willow and Douglas fir. But Arno's land wasn't always that way. When he bought the place in 1971, it looked like some adjacent lands still do--a thick tangle of firs and scrawny pines, with little or no grasses or shrubs poking through a dense blanket of needles and dead branches.

"This is a preservationist's Shangri-La," Arno says of the neighboring forest. "It's remained the same for years, nothing's growing. It's preserved, for a while, but in the context of thousands of years of constant change, it's pretty bizarre."

The Wisdom of Stumps
Rotting stumps of ancient ponderosas stand testament to what this forest once was a grassy savanna of giant pines, where early settlers reported riding two abreast on horseback, and where elk grazed on bunchgrasses and scattered willows. Today, it's difficult to penetrate the thicket, and tough for elk to find food. Why the change? The clues lie in the stumps themselves. Turn-of-the-century high-grading--the practice of cutting only the best, most valuable timber--left these great skeletons to slowly decay back into the earth.

These photos document 40 years of unnatural succession in a ponderosa pine stand on Montana's Bitterroot National Forest. In 1909, loggers cut some trees from an open, grassy forest of towering pines. For thousands of years, frequent wildfires swept through such pine savannas, Wing young firs, recycling nutrients and rejuvenating grasses and forbs. The fire-resistant pines survived. But for the last century, people have waged a vigilant campaign against wildfires, By 1927, Douglas fir and grand fir began dominating the forest understory. By 1948, dense clumps of fir were choking out pines, shading out grasses and forbs. With too many trees competing for water, sun and nutrients, these fir thickets have since grown weak, fueling wildfires far larger and more intense than the frequent ground fires that historically occurred. (photos courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

About the same time the huge pines were heading for the mills, the government began aggressively fighting wildfires. Meanwhile, settler's cattle and sheep grazed down grasses and forbs that once fueled frequent fires, ignited by lightning and Native Americans. For millennia, these fires licked through the forest in a predictable pattern still documented by thin, black scars which appear along annual growth rings in the old stumps at intervals of five to 20 years.

Like predators thinning elk herds, these fires once kept trees in check--killing some, sparing others, recycling nutrients, rejuvenating grasses, shrubs and trees. Without fire, the trees grew dense, overcrowded, more prone to drought, insects and disease--much like an overpopulated elk herd. As competition for water and nutrients increased, so did mortality. The forest grew feeble. Now few 'I healthy pines remain. Douglas firs grow shoulder to shoulder, many dead or dying from mistletoe, bark beetles, root rot and other maladies. Forty-year-old ponderosas that should be 25 to 45 feet tall stand no higher than a person, deformed and crippled by comandra blister rust, a parasitic canker sapping life from the pines.

"These trees didn't evolve to defend themselves from this," Arno says. "Historically, fires did not allow large areas of stagnated saplings to develop. Fires thinned the saplings and did not offer a major breeding ground for the disease."

In the same way, brucellosis is common in elk that congregate each winter on the feedgrounds of the National Elk Refuge, while it is virtually nonexistent in elk that eat natural forage in the winter and remain more dispersed. Without fire to keep stands open and reduce competition from firs, opening the forest canopy, allowing sunlight to reach the ground and replenish nutrients, pines don't have a chance. Like elk, trees need healthy habitat. Fire is as essential as sun and rain.

"Forests are processes, not just trees and plants," Arno says. "And these forests can't survive and remain healthy without processes such as fire."

He explains it this way: "Imagine having an old grandfather clock with a glass front exposing the internal gears. You don't like the looks of one of the gears, so you remove it. Of course, you can't remove the gear and expect the clock to work, yet people expect nature to work without fire."

It hasn't. Throughout the West, fire exclusion, logging and grazing have converted open ponderosa pine forests to fir thickets, providing elk plenty of hiding cover but little forage. Yet forage becomes increasingly critical to elk as subdivisions and strip malls usurp what was once the rich low-elevation mix of pines, riparian hardwoods and grasslands. As more and more people build homes in these forests, they see the immense stumps of ponderosas that once grew there and shake their heads in wistful disbelief. But most of them intuitively reject the idea that burning and logging could actually help bring back those great pines.

When Arno looked at the monolithic old stumps on his place, he saw more than relics of a bygone era. He saw a compelling history--and a guide to the future. Listening to the stumps, Arno began by cutting Douglas firs and sickly pines, leaving the larger, healthier pines, simulating as best he could fire's predation. In the process, he made some income, selling firewood, and pulp and saw logs to local mills. This logging and burning slash in hand-built piles reduced fuels that had accumulated during nearly a century of fire exclusion, fuels that could feed fires far larger and more intense than the frequent surface fires that once occurredthe kind of conflagrations that can damage soils, vegetation and wildlife. Then he brought back fire, torching low clumps of dead willows and stagnant aspen. Now, a year since the last bum, Amo's land is green with pinegrass, bunchgrass, willows, snowbrush and aspen suckers. And elk and deer frequent his land once more.

Restoration Logging
This is the kind of logging Arno would like to see done throughout the lower-elevation pine forests on private and public lands. Restoration logging, he calls it.

"Forests are constantly changing, dependant on periodic disturbances," Arno says. "We can mimic those disturbances with carefully designed harvesting and prescribed fire--not recreating the original forests, but learning from nature, using nature as a guide, maintaining components and processes which these forests evolved with and depend on."

The fire scars in this ponderosa pine stump reveal a history of frequent wildfires occurring from 1713 to 1886. Unable to penetrate the trees thick, protective bark, the flames only scared the pine while killing firs and younger, weaker pines competing for water, nutrients and space--helping this tree grow fast and strong. (photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)


When many people think of logging, they envision denuded mountainsides webbed with roads. And they know some logging operations are still managed for short-term profit, not as part of a long-term process to restore and maintain the health and sustainability of the land. Bad logging inflames cynicism and mistrust. In the same way that many people oppose killing elk, many people now protest cutting trees, anywhere, anytime, no matter the reason. Passion and lack of understanding often fuel these debates. But just as the fact that tusk and hide hunters decimated elk herds at the turn of the century doesn't make all hunting bad, massive clearcuts on steep slopes don't make all logging bad.

Good forestry and wildlife management rest on this fundamental premise: a surplus can be sustainably used by people. And Americans do use wood products. Lots of them. The typical U.S. citizen consumes wood and paper products equivalent to what can be produced from one 100-foot tree every year. This figure includes 663 pounds of paper per person each year, as well as wood fiber in forms as diverse as insulation, rayon, oils, paints and fuels. Small trees are mulched and glued into particle board, wafer board, laminated lumber ... the list goes on.

"We are still hunter-gatherers, we still need to make a living from the land," Arno says. "We can do so and still maintain wildlife and aesthetics."

Arno believes that the United States should rely on homegrown trees to meet its needs rather than importing timber. While U.S. timber companies. export 3.3 billion board feet of timber each year, the U.S. imported 17 billion board feet of processed lumber and raw logs last year. Nearly half of all wood products consumed in the United States today come from other countries--mostly Canada--and such places don't necessarily practice enlightened forestry. Amo's vision of "light-on-the-land" loggingrestoring and maintaining healthy forests, employing local people--contrasts sharply with this condition.

After logging to reduce fuels accumulated from years of fire suppression, foresters are increasingly using prescribed tire to restore many forests to more natural, healthier conditions. (Randy Davis photo)


"We don't need to rob from other societies to support our consumption," he says, "We can, and need to, manage our own forests to improve forest health and reduce the risk of severe wildfires."

Forest Health Emergency?
Logging for healthy forests strikes many people as an oxymoron. Others cautiously embrace it. But some loggers, foresters and timber companies have jumped aboard a "forest health" bandwagon, claiming logging can reduce fire danger and improve forests just about everywhere. This is akin to suggesting that a spike-only season is the right prescription for hunting in all elk herds.

The cones of lodgepole Pines only open and disperse their seeds when exposed to intense heat These high?elevation forests evolved with infrequent, big, hot fires that killed older trees but germinated seedlings. Logging and hot prescribed bums ran help emulate those processes and maintain a mosaic of young and old pine stands, providing habitat for a variety of wildlife. (Bob Bennett photo)


In the name of a "forest health emergency," the U.S. Congress enacted legislation last July that denies the public the opportunity to appeal "salvage" logging of dead and dying timber on public lands. Despite broad public criticism, several national forests have invoked the salvage bill to build new roads and cut dead trees--and live trees, too, if a forester deems them unhealthy. Even trees blown down by strong winds are now being quickly salvaged. But dead and decaying trees are as much a part of healthy forests as fire, wind and rain. Simply removing them ignores the complexities of forest health and further alienates people, provoking controversy instead of consensus. Efforts to get people into the woods and show them sites that demonstrate good forestry are far more likely to regain public trust.

Forest health problems do, indeed, exist, with serious implications for elk. From the Cascade Mountains of Oregon to the Front Range of Colorado, land from British Columbia to Arizona, fire exclusion, logging, grazing and human development have transformed millions of acres of ponderosa pine savannas. In fact, Wallace Covington, an ecologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, calls ponderosa. pine savannas the most endangered forests in the West.

Covington studies ponderosa pine forests in Arizona, comparing current conditions to presettlement times. On the Coconino National Forest, where pine and bunchgrass coexisted with fire for 2 to 5 million years, there were once about two dozen trees per acre--a wide open pine stand with a grassy understory. Today, roughly 850 trees choke each acre. Where 1,000 pounds of grasses and forbs once flourished in each acre of land-sustaining great herds of deer and elk--350 pounds per acre now grow. As the profusion of trees compete for moisture, nutrients, sun and space, they become increasingly stressed. Burning won't solve the problems, Covington says. In the absence of fire, a thick, sterile carpet of duff has crept up the bases of trees. A fire now would not be like the periodic, low-intensity ground fires that once thinned forests. It would be a large, intense fire, reaching high into the crowns and deep into the soils, killing mature pines along with the crowded understory.

That's precisely what happened in a firsnarled former pine savanna much farther north. On August 19, 1992, a dozen lightning strikes in the foothills east of Boise, Idaho, sparked a blaze. that burned 257,000 acres of forests and rangelands, including large pines. The fire scorched one stream to bedrock, wiping out a population of increasingly rare bull trout. Efforts to protect homes cost more than $24 million. One area, however, didn't burn. When it reached Tiger Creek, the blaze lay low and merely burned off the underbrush in a 2,500-acre stand of ponderosa pines--the only survivors within miles. The Tiger stand had previously been logged to remove the understory of fir and reduce fuels, and prescribed fire had been used to restore and rejuvenate grasses.

Like the pine savannas, great stands of aspens grew in What is now Arizona and New Mexico. But in the past century, more than half the aspen forests that existed in pre-settlement times have disappeared. Now, efforts to log tangles of pinon, juniper and fir--combined with prescribed fire--are helping restore the aspens that are synonymous with elk country in the Southwest. And in the moist Sitka spruce and hemlock forests along the West Coast, when conditions were just right every few hundred years, intense fires created expansive openings of grasses and forbs, providing forage for Roosevelt's elk. Here, too, logging and fire may be essential to maintain healthy elk habitat.

Toward Common Goals
But few logging operations occur without heated debate these days. If nothing else, forest health issues may serve as a catalyst to bring people together.

"There hasn't been much effort in the past to explain forestry practices," says Seth Diamond, wildlife program director for the Intermountain Forest Industry Association. "The public has evolved from not being involved, to reacting and criticizing, to where they are now getting out in the woods, learning about forestry and sharing their ideas and concerns. Unfortunately, logging has polarized and alienated a lot of people--but we need those people to help us find solutions to complicated problems. People need to be aware of the consequences and tradeoffs of different options. Yes, there were large fires historically, but is that acceptable today in all places? And if not, what do we want to do? These ecosystems evolved with disturbances like fire, and logging can create similar circumstances."

While logging can reduce fuels and allow managers to safely restore fire, Arno is quick to point out that logging alone cannot replicate fire. Tom Atzet, a Forest Service ecologist for southwestern Oregon forests, agrees.

By bringing people into the woods to demonstrate and explain forestry issues, foresters and land managers can help folks better understand forest ecology and the role of fire and logging in restoring healthy forests. (photo courtesy Chuck Bartlebaugh C. W L)


"Some people say logging is a wholesale substitute for fire," Atzet says. "it isn't. We don't yet understand all of the physical and chemical properties of fire, or the effects fire has on organisms within the environment. Logging can help in some places, by reducing fuels, but as far as nutrient cycling, fire certainly does things that logging doesn't."

Biologists have demonstrated over and over the critical link between fire and countless species of birds, mammals and insects. Even some lichens, which cling to trees and rocks and take their sustenance from air and raincoincidentally serving as key indicators of air quality--may require fire to survive. Atzet says recent research suggests lichens may inhale nutrients from wildfire smoke. In the big picture, we still know very little about the millions of intricate relationships between fire and forest organisms, but we do understand this much: fire is essential to healthy forests.

For many, though, fire conjures images of charred homes and Bambi fleeing a wall of flames. Some people aren't willing to accept the risk of prescribed fire, or simply don't want to choke on smoke lingering in valleys. Just as many don't want logging occurring near their homes. But there is risk in doing nothing as well.

"It's like holding your hand over a dripping hose," Atzet says. "For a while, you can keep the water from coming out. But the pressure builds and builds. Eventually, the water bursts out with far more power and intensity than if you just let it, drip. We've held it back for awhile, but now fuel loads are high, and forests are ready to explode."

Unfortunately for elk, land managers tend to meet the most resistance to logging and burning where people are building homes. This also happens to be where ponderosa pine forests are most in need of thinning and burning, where elk spend harsh winters and require grasses and forbs that can only be restored and sustained by burning and logging, and where elk have already lost millions of tons of forage to human sprawl. Only by working together will people solve such dilemmas.

Atzet has a disabled son, who has been in and out of hospitals for years. At times, Atzet grows frustrated with doctors who leave him to fidget in waiting rooms, uninformed.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is committed to working with private landowners to promote good forest management to enhance habitat for elk and other wildlife. To learn more about our many conservation partnerships with individuals and corporations, please call 1-800-225-5355, ext. 542.


"They have my son's best interest at heart, but treat me like an outsider," he says. "Yet I have more interest in my son than anyone else in the world. It can be that way with forestry. People have a deep interest in forests, and land managers can be like doctors."

On one occasion when Atzet took his son in for a spinal tap, doctors parted the heavy curtain of professional medicine and allowed him to join them in the operating room to watch and help.

"We were working together toward the same goal," he says. "It can work the same in forest management, by letting people who care join in the process, to watch and help.

"It's not the science. We're not lacking the science to do a good job in managing ecosystems. It's the human element--getting people to work together toward common goals."

------ What's Good For The Goose May Kill The Gander ------

The great pitfall of "forest health" lies in people's tendency to overgeneralize. What works in one forest may prove disastrous elsewhere. For example, high-elevation forests like lodgepole pine evolved with less frequent, more intense wildfires. These burns created a patch of grass here, a small stand of young lodgepole there, and some dense old-growth nearby to form a classic mosaic, supporting everything from elk and deer to pine martens and owls. But years of fire exclusion and logging have allowed lodgepoles to grow into larger, more uniform stands with little diversity. Pine beetle epidemics and large wildfires are on the rise.

But thinning and burning the understory would be absurd here. Scattered clearcuts and more intense prescribed burns would more closely follow historic natural patterns of fire. In the high country of Idaho's Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, for instance, large hot fires occasionally burn dry, south-facing slopes creating huge brushfields, while sparing the spruce and fir on moist north slopes. Viewed from above, the patchwork of trees and openings is difficult to distinguish from clearcuts in adjacent logged areasexcept for the roads.

Foresters prescribe distinct treatments to different forests. Clearcutting ponderosas can be like amputating the leg of a heart attack victim. So can thinning lodgepole. But when economic and social pressures transcend genuine forest health considerations, land managers may prescribe the wrong treatment in the wrong place. That's why clearcuts have a bad name, and why folks think selective cuts are always best. Clearcuts assault people's senses, while a selectively thinned forest seldom draws attention. But aesthetics don't always equate to good forestry. Selective logging has become synonymous with good forestry, yet if only large, valuable trees are selectively cut, it's nothing more than high-grading.

Of course, logging plans must account for social and economic factors. Modern technology allows for logging that's lighter on the land than past practices, but not without tradeoffs. Helicopter logging can eliminate the need for roads in some areas, but to make a profit, loggers may have to cut bigger, more valuable trees, like mature ponderosa pines and larches--often the very fire-adapted, fire-dependant species foresters are trying to restore. More traditional equipment like grapple skidders and feller bunchers costs less, but requires roads and skid trails.

Some state-of-the-art machinery, like harvesters and forwarders (that together form a "cut-to-length system" that cuts, limbs and loads trees on the spot) can range far from roads, reducing the number of roads required. Equipped with wide, rubber tires, the machines cause less erosion and soil compression than traditional equipment, and they can process small-diameter fir thickets that may be impractical to log otherwise. But together they cost about $700,000.

Every technique has benefits, each has faults. Much depends on the types of trees to be cut, when they are cut, the nature of the terrain where they grow, the going price of lumber and pulp, and whether the trees are on public or private land. Logging on private lands tends to have a more singular focus. Expensive, timeconsuming thinnings and prescribed burns don't boost the bottom line of timber company ledgers. And timber companies are in business to make money. If they don't, a lot of elk habitat could be sold and used for other profitmaking ventures--like subdivisions or exclusive hunting resorts.

In contrast, agencies charged with stewardship of public lands may view logging to restore and maintain healthy forests as essential, even if they have to do it without making a profit--much like they use controlled burns to maintain healthy elk winter range. Like prescribed fire, logging can be an important way to restore natural vigor to a forest.
-- D.S.

 

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