The restoration will not be televised

  • NPS/Photo by Jim Peaco
  • After the Fires

  In nature, there is neither right or wrong — only consequences. The truth of that is demonstrated in After the Fires: The Ecology of Change in Yellowstone National Park.

The wildfires that swept Yellowstone in 1988 were the first prime-time forest fires, according to the book. Television viewers stared aghast at the raging flames and blackened trees. But their visceral horror belied the fact that major conflagrations are part of the natural process at Yellowstone. After the Fires, a collection of articles by different authors, chronicles the results of research into fire’s long-term effects on the ecosystem, its plants and its animals.

This technical book is not light reading, but it offers interesting and sometimes surprising information. Scenes from the Disney movie Bambi notwithstanding, snow and drought have a greater impact on the survival of wildlife, such as elk and bison, than do wildfires, because fires are more localized than weather. And despite the devastation wrought by the 1988 burn, the researchers conclude, it caused no long-term reduction in wildlife populations. Likewise, the effects on vegetation were generally neutral or positive. Even where severe crown fires burned most of the lodgepole pine seeds, researchers found that regrowth was sufficient to restore the stands.

This research could have implications for forest management. One chapter shows that natural fires create up to four times the amount of coarse woody debris — snags and fallen wood that nourish the soil as they decay — as timber harvesting. Clearly, logging can’t entirely replace wildfire as a means of maintaining forest health.

The book warns that wildfires may become harmful if global warming causes them to become more frequent. Otherwise, however, fire is a natural phenomenon that is "sometimes unpopular" but offers "a fascinating look into the forces that shape our natural world."