Reviving forests after the flames

Even before the smoke clears, scientists are assessing how to rejuvenate burned areas.

A crew of firefighters from Curlew, Wash., are fanning out with shovels and water-sprayers, putting out embers around Betty Hawkes's log-cabin-style vacation home. The fact that the home is still standing, after a wall of flame 100 feet high descended this hillside, is testament to the courage of firefighters, and the efficacy of flame-retardant foam.

But even before the smoke clears in this section of the Bitterroot National Forest, the long-term work of reviving these woods is just beginning. Soon, timber specialists will determine which trees to save and which to harvest.

Hydrologists will identify hillsides prone to erosion. Biologists will set up schedules for reintroducing native trees and shrubs. They'll have to work quickly. Winter is coming. Rain and snow could wash away in one season the soil that centuries have built up.

The decisions these scientists make will be crucial, and perhaps controversial. After all, there are still some environmentalists out here who chain themselves to trees to stop logging, and loggers who like nothing better than seeing a hillside of stumps. But more than a decade of increasingly dangerous and devastating fires out West appears to be giving activists on both sides a common goal - healthy forests - and a growing belief that fire is a natural process that is here to stay.

"When you get change of the magnitude that we're seeing, it's clear that if we keep doing the same thing we did, we'll keep getting to where we are now," says Rodd Richardson, forest supervisor at the Bitterroot National Forest station in Hamilton, Mont. "Now the community is dealing with issues of 'What end result do we want out there?' instead of getting one issue like salvage logging, which will just polarize people."

While there's plenty of debate about what should be done in the future, there's little argument about what has gone wrong. For better or worse, the arrival of Western settlers, trappers, loggers, and ranchers disrupted forever the land practices that had shaped Western forests for thousands of years. Native Americans had set fires to hunt and to rejuvenate forest growth. Westerners, with their permanent log cabins, saw fire as an implacable enemy, and began a century of strict fire suppression.

With nothing but the saw to threaten them, trees today grow closer together and pine needles pile up like so much kindling. Cutbacks in timber harvesting, in the name of protecting endangered species, have made forests even denser, up to 850 trees per acre today (compared with an estimated 400 trees per acre in 1900). When fire comes, as it has in 1978, 1988, 1994, 1996, 1999, and this year, it burns so hot that some stretches of forest floor have no organic matter left to support life.

It's hard to quantify the anger that many Montanans feel about the way federal lands are managed. Typical is a handpainted sign just a half mile from the Valley Complex camp of firefighters, south of Darby.

One line thanks the firefighters. Another line chastises the US Forest Service for "mismanagement." But the toughest words take on Bill Clinton and Al Gore: "Because of your environmental policies, the jobs are GONE, the way of life is GONE, and now the beauty is GONE. What's next? Shame on you!" Faced with these circumstances, the teams of Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) experts have a task cut out for them. But they have a number of tools and a growing knowledge of how ecosystems work.

In rehab, the first priority is clearing up the disturbances of firefighting. Ditches, dug by hand or by bulldozer, must be filled in. Exposed soil must be covered, often by the very brush and pine needles that were removed when fire lines were built. But it doesn't stop there. Soil experts have developed a number of tools to stabilize hillsides. In some cases, tubes of wire mesh are filled with straw and laid horizontally on a slope to slow down the flow of water, and to retain the soil. Areas where the soil is repellant to water are broken up with rakes and mixed with organic matter to encourage water to soak into the ground rather than run off.

Alan Rhodes, an employee of the Bureau of Land Management in Salem, Ore., has spent a long summer fighting fires, from New Mexico to Montana. In many cases, the same firefighters who put out a fire will take on the task of bringing the forest back to life.

ONCE hillsides have been stabilized, biologists will determine what mix of trees should be planted there, based on the habitat, and how many trees per acre to plant. Some trees, such as lodgepole pines will reseed themselves, since their pine cones require the heat of fire to open and release seeds. In any case, care will be taken to keep distance between trees, since density increases the risk of fire and the infestation of pests, such as beetles.

"We can't get back to where we were," says Jeffrey Amoss, officer at Bitterroot National Forest's station in Hamilton. "But there are things we can do on national forests to make them healthy, sustainable ecosystems."

Maintaining the long-term health of forests will clearly take a change of methods, including thinning and, in some cases, controlled burns. The latter will likely face resistance from the growing number of those who are building homes at forest's edge.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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