West of 100: Fire & Brimstone


In this edition of West of 100, we've got a couple of stories about wildfire. First, the backstory to Emily Guerin's piece, "Fire scientists fight over what Western forests should look like." We'll talk with Emily about why the debate over a new study arguing that severe fire may be more normal than we thought became so emotional among fire scientists. And Neil LaRubbio brings us a travelogue from the Gila Wilderness in the wake of the Whitewater-Baldy fire -- the biggest blaze in New Mexico history. 

Music in this episode: "AT LAST" by Jared C. Balogh, licensed under Creative Commons. 

Photo: Seedlings sprout in the Gila after it burned this summer, courtesy Gila National Forest

William L Baker
William L Baker Subscriber
Sep 26, 2012 12:01 AM

Thanks for taking the time to cover this story.

In my opinion, scientists who engage in personal attacks and hyperbole denigrate science and the many professionals who have dedicated their lives to seeking the truth through careful examination and debate about evidence.

Readers who may be interested, can have a look at the study itself and its evidence. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It required five years of work, hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funding, and the labor and thinking of many students. There are 13,000 individual records from 28,000 trees that are the basis for the findings. Because of public interest, the publisher has made the article freely available for anyone to read:

A critique was that the surveys should not be used for this kind of research, but the surveys have been used for just these kinds of research purposes in hundreds of published scientific studies. Our particular versions of these methods are published in Ecological Monographs, one of the top scientific journals in the world.

Regarding ponderosa pine regeneration after high-severity fires, we know that the trees come back, although at times not for 10-30 years, because there are early historical accounts of specific large, high-severity fires in places that are now forested. Often there are some surviving trees, even in large fires, and ponderosa pine seed is dispersed from them by wind, gravity, and animals.


William L. Baker, Professor
University of Wyoming

Andrew Sipocz
Andrew Sipocz
Sep 26, 2012 12:13 PM
Thanks for the open access paper and thanks for your research into this topic. I've been reading your other publications and anything really that I can find on how domestic stock grazing affects savannah landscapes. There's a lot of good stuff coming out of Africa where researchers don't necessarily have the same biases they do in the western U.S. and where they've been able to observe landscape change occuring during these times of modern environmental research.

I think there is much disagreement on the subject of western landscape change because of the way universities have segragated forestry, range and botanical sciences. It's rare to find a forester who can identify any plant other than a tree worth a damn. The surge in conservation biology programs meant to integrate these sciences has instead turned out researches who lack basic botanical and forest and wildlife management skills. I.e. the basics.

What's missing from the discussion on western landscape change in my opinion, is the almost complete loss of the native grassland and herb component of the dry forest savannah. Foresters tend to think of grasses and herbs as just fuel for fires rather than as the dominant competitor of tree seedlings for nutrients and water. Which is weird because the amount of literature on the effects of herbaceous competition on tree seedling survival is fairly large. Folks just aren't talking to one another here. And when they do they use a lot of curse words.

At any rate I find it telling that the range scientists are now classifying range condition based on biomass production versus species composition. The reason is simple. After 150 years of grazing by domestic stock, there are almost no rangelands and savannahs that retain their original, diverse, tree seedling strangling herbaceous plant communities. Why foresters think this would have no impact on forest structure is a mystery to me.