Burnt Forest Is Recovered From Green Forest
Recently I was wandering through a burnt forest in the aftermath of a wildfire with a mixed group of people as part of a field trip with a forest collaborative. We were examining the burn severity pattern that a wildfire had carved through the forest. In many places, the fire had barely charred the ground, while in other places nearly all the trees had been killed.
Standing among the black snags that were created in the aftermath of a particularly high severity burn, someone asked how long it would take for the forest to “recover.” That is a common question I hear frequently from people, and certainly that is the way most people view the aftermath of wildfires. When they ask how long it will take to “recover” from the fire, they mean, how long will it take for tall, green trees to repopulate the area.
Though it is nearly universal among most people who have been taught to think about wildfires as “destructive”, from an ecological perspective it belies a failure to really understand forest ecology. It is the wrong question and certainly the wrong perspective to hold.
Green trees are only one part of a forest ecosystem life cycle, just as the river channel is only one part of a river system. Burnt forests are as important to forest ecosystems as flood plains are to river systems. Just as floods rejuvenate a river changing river channels, creating new habitat for colonizing plants like cottonwood and willow, and high flows allow some fish and aquatic organisms to migrate and move through the river system, wildfires also create important habitat and opportunities within forested ecosystems.
A “healthy” river is one that periodically floods. Among most western ecosystems, a “healthy” forest is one that periodically burns. Just as the intensity of floods can vary over time—with annual, 100 year and 500 year floods, the intensity and frequency of wildfires also varies depending on many factors including the species of plants living in a site, climatic changes, and so forth. The burnt snags and blackened ground we were walking through were not “recovering’ from the fire. Rather the burnt forest with its snags, open soils, and flood of nutrients was “recovering” from the green forest.
Wildfires are the major recruitment mechanism for creation of standing snags and fallen logs. And these are critical elements in most forest ecosystems. If you are a wood boring insect, you love the blackened snags—and if you are a black-backed woodpecker you find a virtual smorgasbord among the snags. If you are a cavity nesting bird like the western bluebird or tree swallow then the burnt forest represents residential real estate. And among the charred snags, elk will find abundant forage on the invigorated new growth of shrubs and grass.
As these snags fall to the ground, they are invaded by wood-living bees and wasps that will pollinate the new shrubs and wildflowers that burst into color in the aftermath of a fire. The fallen logs will be colonized by yet other life forms from fungi to lichens and provide the home for small rodents. Dead logs become hiding cover and travel pathways for marten, fisher, and lynx. It is for these and many other reasons that burnt forests have the second highest biodiversity after old growth forests, and are the only habitat for some species.
Given that the snag forests that result in the aftermath of a forest fire are temporally and spatially rare—there is nearly always more green forest than fire killed forests on the landscape at any one time—these fire-dependent and fire created ecosystems are actually more rare than almost any other kind of habitat.
Words are important because they shape the way we perceive things. That is why to suggest that the forest is “recovering” from a wildfire implies a failure to appreciate the ecosystem’s needs. At least in most western forest ecosystems, a “healthy” forest is one that burns. Indeed, after fire, we might be more ecologically correct and truthful if we said the forest ecosystem is recovering from the green forest.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
45 Responses to Burnt Forest Is Recovered From Green Forest
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I remember visiting Yellowstone with my son in 1989 the year after the big fire. Everyone told us not to go “the park was ruined” but as we explored the damage by car. We got out a walked a forest trail that was totally burned with snags and overhanging ghostly hulks of grand trees but underneath was the most amazingly beautiful explosion of wild flowers I had ever seen. They were waste deep and filled with insects and birds. There seemed to be plenty of bear and elk around too.
It was an amazing transformation and a terrific lesson in natural regeneration. Nature is an incredible resource.
I was there to watch it burn. It was very pleasant to stay in the Slough Creek campground in late October 1988 and watch scattered logs smouldering and burning to the south on Specimen Ridge. It was a good feeling to be there and watch this historic event.
You are absolutely right about the next summer. The Lamar Valley was a sea of blue lupine. There were wildflowers all over the burned grasslands of the Northern Range.
The ignorant politicians who said Yellowstone was destroyed the year earlier were never properly called to account and properly humiliated.
Where I live in southern MI (deciduous forest) it is lack of fire that I fear. I was skeptical about burning here 20 years ago, but now that we’ve tried it in several places, my eyes have changed, and I see that I want it almost everywhere. Perhaps I am biased for oak.
I seem to remember from a Terrestrial Ecosystems course, red oak will hold on to their leaves until the following Spring, and then shed. Theory has it, the dried leaves provide fodder for small fires, that can then burn out potential competition. The fires themselves would be of no consequence to the mature trees that provided the fuel for the fires.
I visited Yellowstone after the fire too – I do remember the blackened trees, but green coming up too. I have pictures somewhere!
It might have been a year or several years after.
In the south we have a few remnant long leaf pine eco-systems. They requires fire to control the less fire resistant deciduous vegetation that would otherwise crowd out the pines. This is the home of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and the threatened gopher tortoise whose borrows provides critical habitat to the endangered indigo snake (largest noninvasive snake in North america) and the eastern diamondback (largest viper in north america)and a many other fora and fauna Anyway fire is the key to making it work. We are finally making progress with saving and recreating this habitat. (Saving Snakes is a hard sell to southerners but luckily the tortoise is universally loved and everyone wants to save them. Except maybe certain
snaildarter, I was going to ask you if the long leaf pine was different than the Savannah pine system but looked it up. Plus, I wondered if the cones were fire dependent for seed dispersal. Got my answers from here, http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/sciencef/scifi152.pdf
Haven’t read all of it yet, but it looks interesting.
btw, I think saving snakes is a hard sell in any region. I am constantly trying to educate people at work to not kill the snakes when they encounter them. A lot of people lose their common sense over snakes, any kind of snake.
Speaking of snakes Yvette (posted this link before on TWN) ran into this woman a couple of years ago:
Within minutes of meeting MS Reed, she pulled out her camera and showed me pictures of a couple of wolves (off in the distance) she’d taken outside the Dillon area, over in the Blacktail.
Claimed she’d shot at one of them “on the run” but missed.
Obviously doing her hometown “part” keeping predators in check but perhaps missing the bigger picture when it comes to the ecosystem?
Wow Nancy I wish I had not read that. That kind of wanton waste and entitlement is the stuff of nightmares. Calling breeding female snakes witches and hunting them down in their dens is ironic. Her behavior borne out of fear is the same mentality that allowed women to be burned at the stake. Of all the snakes I’ve ever seen, they want away from you as fast as possible. I ‘ve read the same is true for most venomous snakes also.
That is one of the most fck up things I’ve ever read.
Getting bite by a rattlesnake in Montana will cost between $80,000 and $150,000 depending upon the hospital. A good friend of mind’s brother is the snake bite coordinator for Montana. Ten thousand for a vial of serum, and one may use up to ten vials. The sad thing is that a hospital in Great Falls charge twice as much as a hospital in Billings.
Several years ago in Roundup, Montana, fifty miles north of Billings, they people of the community had a fund raiser so the local hospital could have anti venom.
I don’t argue that a rattlesnake bite can be more than inconvenient, but somehow humans are going to have to learn to accommodate other species. At the very least, we owe them more than seeking them out in their dens to eradicate them. http://sedgwick.nrs.ucsb.edu/sites/sedgwick.nrs.ucsb.edu/files/pdfs/Rattlesnake-Information-Page.pdf
12 rattlesnake deaths a year – compare to auto accidents, disease etc……
Seeking them out is definitely wrong. We’re so strange….just the fact that this woman calls them witches says it all.
Seems like wild animals are always a threat to some people whether its wolves, bears, lions or snakes. Before long maybe the earth will be fully developed and everyone will live in an urban area surrounded by lots of concrete, asphalt and steel and sanitized from all other animals except humans. Then we can all live safe, secure and happily ever after. (Sarcasm intended)
That would be no fun living in a world of concrete, but getting bite by a rattle snake is serious.
I’ve had my share of run-ins with rattlesnakes over the years, mostly when I was younger and working or recreating in CO and Eastern WA.
Picked up a bale of hay to load it on a truck, only to “hear” there was a diamondback beneath. Couldn’t see it. Not easy to step away quickly with an 80 pound bale balanced against your lower thigh, or drop it because, to get leverage you have to lift a leg to thrust it forward or to the side (movement often gets a snake to strike). Scared me pretty good. After that, I began to drag the bale a short distance before lifting it, to be sure nothing was hiding beneath (also happened with garter snakes, or the occasional bullsnake, but they mostly just slithered off fast as they could. Also, had a rattlesnake go thru the baler and still be mostly alive and pissed coming out the other end.
I think I have told some other snake stories here in the context of other issues, like the one I found in my truck driver side, while was working for the US Forest Service one summer.
Mostly, the folks who think more positively about rattlesnakes are the ones who haven’t been around them much, especially in close quarters.
And, by the way, you can’t hear a rattle even in a fairly mild wind.
“Mostly, the folks who think more positively about rattlesnakes are the ones who haven’t been around them much, especially in close quarters.”
Nah, I disagree, WM. Anyone that herps knows the risk and still appreciates being around them. I have a dozen or so within a couple hundred feet of my house on a ridgeline in north Alabama. Hell, I’ve got pictures of them in trees (Audubon was right!) Along with the possibility of ticks and poison ivy, timber rattlers keep people off my property better than a dog or a ‘No Trespassing’ sign ever could. Without them, chipmunks and squirrels would chew my cedar siding to hell. I’ve had 2 dogs bit, both survived and learned not to run ridgelines in summer (I think they can smell the timber rattlers now). And yes, I tend to avoid what’s left of the woodpile in summer…no need to push my luck…they can have it till November.
Guess you don’t have kids, or croquet parties on the lawn, much either, eh? It appears you know some of the limitations of “living with nature,” but not without a couple family lessons.;)
Yep, my teenager has had just about everything reasonable: birds, snakes, crabs, turtles, flying squirrels, odd bugs, millipedes, fish, etc. It was a crowded house for a while…now mostly musical instruments…still crowded.
Croquet parties- my neighbor found an 8 lb. (union) cannon ball in his yard about 5 years ago.
This has been humanity’s approach to wildlife for ages – supernatural and superstition. It’s too bad these innocent animals such as snakes and wolves have to be subjected to it. They are dangerous under the right conditions of course, but not to the point of the irrational fears we have.
She’s probably a faith healer too.
Thanks for the good words on irrational fears. You are right people fear what they don’t take the time to appreciate or understand. They understand a car crash and head out on the highway without a care. However the thought of a rattlesnake and they come undone. Perhaps a hike down the Main or Middle Fork of the Salmon River or the Grand Canyon where snakes can be found all along the trail, on the trail, under the rocks along the trail, on ledges next to the trail, on the beaches and even hanging out in bushes, apparently waiting for a feathered snack. If you look closely you will even find them curled up on a cold morning waiting for the sun. Yes they are everywhere. Just accept that this is their place and respect them and stifle the urge to fear and kill them. Take the time to look at them closely and you will find that they are beautiful animals and not a weapon of mass destruction. They are simply going about their business and hope you will leave them to it and admire them for what they are. They don’t appreciate being stepped on and will do everything in their power to let you know they are there, so take out the ear buds and listen to the sounds of nature. Just remember that there are many other things in life far more deadly than a rattlesnake and the old saying that the first hiker wakes them up, the second makes them mad and the third gets bit. So if you are third in line pay attention.
I personally would love to see a rattlesnake. I find snakes, like all other wildlife, fascinating. Sometimes I’ll find an (ordinary) one curled up in my basement. Just put on some heavy gloves and put him outside.
I had a close call in the Sierra Nevadas recently. My friends and I were hiking near the King’s river and my encounter happened right on the trail right next to a parking lot. We started walking and behind me, my friend began mumbling something incomprehensible. When I turned around to ask him to speak up, I saw him pointing to the trail near my feet. I looked down and not three feet away from my foot was a yearling n. pacific rattler in a strike position (rattle is silent btw). Freezing in place near this rattler at arguably it’s most dangerous age, I clenched my cheeks and thanked my stars that we were at least next to the parking lot and not deep in the wilderness area I was hiking towards.
The rattler behaved exactly as you described, Louise. As soon as I froze, it turned tail and slithered into it’s burrow faster than I could pull out my camera for a pic. I adore snakes (have a small python who does mistakenly bite me on occasion) and that day only reaffirmed my love. I’ve hiked in viper habitat my whole life. Now I just pay more attention off and ON the trail.
I find this snake killing to be absolutely disgusting.
“control their population” That seems to be the pat answer for anything wildlife.
Every population except our own!
Our Eastern rattlers are endangered – all due mostly to superstition, I believe.
If the only tool you have is a hammer than every problem is a nail
We have at least 5 rattlesnake roundup festivals in Oklahoma. I’ve been to the one in Apache, OK many years ago. It is unbelievable how many snakes they capture and kill. These are small towns that center a tourism attraction around these rattlesnake roundup festivals. There are people in Oklahoma that have had their boots on the ground working to change how these festivals operate. They are not confrontational and try to work with those small towns on education rather than eradication. It is a closed group on facebook but they are called RARR, (Rise-up Against Rattlesnake Roundups).
This video was done several years ago, but it shows some of the problems with the illegal animal cruelty that happens at these festivals. This year, for the first time, the Waurika, OK festival stopped sewing rattlesnake’s mouths shut so they could be used as props for photos. They freeze the rattlesnakes for a couple hours to slow their metabolic rate so they can proceed sew their mouths shut. Then they are nothing but props, left in the heat and sun until they either die or nearly die. That is a violation of Oklahoma animal cruelty statutes, (explained in the video) but the county DA, and the OK Governor, Mary Fallin have refused to act. However, there are still rattlesnake roundup festivals in at least two other small, OK towns.
And a must read article by Todd Autry. http://www.reptilesmagazine.com/Venomous-Snakes/Rattlesnake-Roundups/
There are many people that respect herps, including venomous snakes. It isn’t because they haven’t been around them or don’t get in snake habitat.
My job entails field work. I’m up and down stream channels. The streams I primarily work in are not the clear water, cobble bottom streams. ( oh how I wish they were) They are prairie streams. Sometimes the water is clear, but often what I encounter is a sand/silt substrate with turbid water. You can’t see through it, so you don’t know what you’re stepping on or what is swimming along side you. The past summer I worked on a wetlands project. I had sites that were a challenge to reach because there were no close roads, and no towns or developments close. I had this discussion with the young man that assists me in the field. When people find out where we are going they always warn us, “watch out for the snakes. There’s lots of pgymy rattlers down in there; there’s lots of copperheads in there…ect. Be very careful of the feral hogs, too.”
Since my project this past year took me further away from towns, roads, and settlements, I expected to encounter at least a few snakes. The only snake I saw was one small water moccasin when I was in a little 1st order creek. That’s it for this past season.
In all the years that I’ve regularly been up and down these creeks I’ve only encountered snakes on a few occasions. They are there somewhere, but I’ve never had any problems. Usually when I do see the snakes it is spring when they are first starting to emerge.
…..it could just be dumb luck, too. I think some years they may be more prevalent than other years.
I think we have another example of species that are maligned based more on fear than what actually happens. However, they do deserve respect. I certainly didn’t want to get a venomous bite when I’m that far away from an ER.
People can decrease the likelihood of being bitten by:
1. Pay attention to where you step and what you are doing when in snake habitat.
2. Unless there is a good reason to handle them just leave them alone. They really don’t want to expend the energy and waste their venom on you.
I’m more afraid of encountering the illegal pot growers or meth cookers when I’m out than I am of feral hogs and venomous snakes. People are nuts; snakes are just snakes.
So why does the Forest Service and BLM waste hundreds of millions of dollars attempting to suppress fires each year, even though most of these fires are well away from homes and communities!
The Forest Service is proposing to burn small areas within wilderness areas in Oregon to prevent “catastrophic” wildfires from occurring. This makes no sense since wilderness areas are established for natural disturbances such as wildfires, and insect and disease outbreaks. Hopefully this proposal will die a quick death.
Probably the same reason Bureau of Rec builds dams, the Corp dikes big rivers, BLM allows grazing almost everywhere. The bureaucracies are the biggest special interests groups of all.
We still have rattlesnake roundups here but most of the snake exhibitors have sworn that they use the same “pet” snakes year after year. They used to “hunt” by putting gasoline down the poor gopher tortoise’s burrow to ferret out the snakes. Even though the indigo snake will eat rattle snakes they often hibernate in the same burrow. So rattlesnake hunts can be problematic for the indigo. Another one of this big snakes problems is it needs 10 miles square (100 square miles) of habitat that’s which is hard to come by in the south these days.
I’ve no doubt told this one before:
We (DNR volunteers in MI) fight to improve habitat where we have eastern massassauga ( “pygmy rattler”, spelling varies), cause it’s in trouble and MI is the real stronghold of the species in North America. It’s on the T-shirts our “generals” wear (over 750 hours of volunteering). We nearly worship them, partly cause the environments they inhabit are often amazingly beautiful places, botanically speaking. But a kid got bit in a park last summer (wanted to handle it), at UM’s bot gardens, where they have funding to help it, and do studies. There are many warning signs, as there are in many of our parks, cause folks don’t know. Lots of people said it’s idiotic, snakes are a danger and should be removed, though I think nobody has died in the last century, and they are so rare that bites are something like 1 every 2 decades (and usually need no treatment). Most residents do not know they exist, and >99% will never see one in their (cloistered) lives. I gave the usual statistics about death due to dogs, or deer.
An aside,many years ago, I went through the interview process at a mid sized city herpetarium. They were looking for someone with “hot” reptile experience. Well, I had none. During the conversation, I was told if a keeper got bit because of their own lack of caution, once recovered from said bite, they were fired. Rationale: enough safety precautions in place to not get bit.
Also in regard to snakes, returning from the Tetons years ago, I camped somewhere in Nebraska. Went out for a run in the morning and caught some young constrictor, probably a Bull Snake. Some old geezer drove up beside me and called out to kill it. I replied why? He said, “it’s the devil!” Looking around at the surrounding sea of corn, the bitter irony of his statement was mind addling.
While living in Maine I would on occasion find a milk snake and bring it in the house for a couple of days for the kids to become more familiar with them; my visiting father-in-law, visiting from Wisconsin, came in all excited telling me that he had just killed a rattlesnake in the garden. Upon examination it was a milk snake. He was so proud of the great feat I didn’t have the fortitude to tell him what he had done until the beginning of his next visit.
I indoctrinated my granddaughters in Idaho in similar fashion with gopher snakes. Initially they were both afraid of them but in a few days they were carrying them about and showing them to others.
Larger snakes seem to be better for these introductions than small ones. Four foot boa constrictors helped many kids overcome their fears at a couple of high schools in which I taught.
One if the problems with our native constrictors is that they will vibrate their tail. In dry brush, it will seem like a rattle sound to the uninformed, often times resulting in a dead snake.
I also heard this from various sources but discovered that they can make an audible vibration with their tail with out any dry brush or grass. One I had on a soft carpet indoors raised and vibrated its tail that made a distinct rattle sound when my dog approached it – it really surprised me!
In my classroom that vibrating tail of rat snakes against glass was very loud. Kids were fascinated. They got extra credit for cleaning cages. I’d always get the call to come help when those tails vibrated.
Legitimate rattlesnake bite is very uncommon; a large portion of bites can be attributed to individuals who are intentionally and knowingly messing with snakes. Also, they who collect rattlers for roundups don’t go collecting out of our homes and towns, they venture deep into wild areas with ideal habitats for these snakes, to have the best chances of catching enough. Rattlesnake Roundups were started for one purpose, to eradicate the species making it “safer” for people, little do they know the upset in the ecosystem and the increase of their natural prey, which spread disease, would mean that MORE people would die or suffer without them present and in their natural role in our ecosystems. Today the purpose for the roundups is monetary, making money at the yearly festival is very important to some of these towns as it draws tourists in and boosts the town’s economy, it is also seen as a tradition. We would like to urge all rattlesnake roundups to adopt a family-friendly, no-kill, no-torture, educational type event such as what Claxton Georgia has done in recent years, I do believe they have benefited from the change and are making slightly more money as well. Or that of the Texas Rattlesnake Festival, which is an excellent example to follow. Rattlesnake roundups as we know them today are well-known for breaking animal welfare laws in Oklahoma, ripping fangs out of a rattlesnakes skull and sewing its mouth shut to parade it around and allow people to take photos with it for $5 and earn a certificate of bravery while the snake slowly dies, is against the law (title 21, state statue 1685, state statue 1680 defines rattlesnakes as an animal so the law does indeed apply to them) It is a ridiculously heinous act, and again we would like to encourage ALL roundups to follow the example of the Texas Rattlesnake Festival and the many other roundups that have changed to more suitable events. Look at some of the images from the following link of rattlesnakes with their mouths sew shut.
Watch some of the videos on this playlist to learn more about the truth of rattlesnake roundups: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8AUfCFLstHYwN2DDFlR6WKCDou9myEQk
People really have to try to actively get along with wildlife – it’s not possible to kill everything off so that you can have a lawn party. We humans have an exaggerated sense of our own place in nature because we have been able to bully it for so long.
I look at these things as almost ‘badges’ of outdoorsmanship and travel – grizzly encounter, snake bite, malaria – I would take all the precautions I could but realize it’s part of it.
Here’s a great YouTube by Orry Martin:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8EyGbxMVqc&google_comment_id=z13uzxlg5vbkfvwxi04chv5xskfqh3eyg24
Whether you like rattlesnakes or not, they need to be protected like all wildlife –remember that bit of news about more than 50% of wildlife lost to us in just 40 years. And then, there’s that Newsweek article, Ebola Shows the World Is Primed for the Perfect Microbial Storm, “…species losses in ecosystems spur rises in pathogens as we intrude into areas of high biodiversity.” And the one about the rise of Lyme disease correlating with extirpation of Timber rattlesnakes: “After studying the snake’s eating habits in eastern forests, the University of Maryland biologists found that each timber rattlesnake …consumes 2,500 to 4,500 blacklegged ticks living on the mice it eats each year.” And there’s this, from a 2007 story in Colorado Central Magazine: “Does killing [rattlesnakes] make us safer? First note that rattlers eat a lot of small rodents. Then observe that nationwide, about eight people a year die from rattlesnake bites. And about 15 die from Hantavirus, which is carried by small rodents….”
Excellent article, the analogy with a river system is perfect. Particularly for birds the suppression of small, easy to put out fires over the past 100 years I’m sure has had a real negative impact with the loss of the natural mosaic of habitats that so many species of birds use for feeding and nesting adjacent to mature forests. Last year in early fall I got to spend two weeks in a cabin along the Spotted Bear River in the Bob Marshall…where the cabin was at had not seen fire in a long time and the only birds I saw in the forest were gray jay’s but a few miles away where there had been a fire with mixed severity there was mountain bluebirds, great grey owls, many songbirds and woodpeckers, including black-backed woodpeckers…the difference was amazing.