Heated Conversations


Comments posted online in response to our Sept. 17 story "Fire fights":

There is really no question about Richard Hutto's quote in this article, "the federal government is spending money thinning forests that have a long history of dense stands and severe fires."

But one should differentiate forest management at its interface with homes and infrastructure from forest management for the purpose of ecological restoration. Those with interests in timberlands are equally averse to severe fires. These are the areas where the vast majority of active forest management is occurring, particularly the small-diameter fuels reduction type work cited in this article. Sweeping generalizations regarding fire ecology and forest management have perpetuated a "one size fits all" strategy among land managers and the public.

Matt Whithed

Natural Resources Conservation Service
Corvallis, Montana

Tom Swetnam and Peter Brown "questioned how ponderosa pines could regenerate if Bill Baker and Mark Williams are correct about severe fires having scarred Western landscapes for generations." They regenerate the same way most wingless pine seeds do -- by animal dispersal. I have numerous photos of Clark's nutcrackers and Mexican jays extracting seeds from cones on severely burned ponderosa pines. The more you learn about severe-fire ecology, the more it all makes sense -- plant, beetle, and bird adaptations that are apparent even in many of our dry mixed-conifer forest types!

Dick Hutto
Biology professor, University of Montana
Missoula, Montana

In the article Malcolm North incorrectly states that the General Land Office data used by Williams and Baker is a "very scant data set" that does not allow for extrapolation to the landscape scale. In fact, this GLO data comprises thousands of sites over entire landscapes. The data used by Williams and Baker, in fact, is by far the largest data set ever used to address the historic occurrence of high-severity fire in ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests. As for the comments by Swetnam and Brown, who imply that ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forest does not naturally regenerate after high-severity fire, this assumption is contradicted by the scientific literature. Savage and Mast (2005) found hundreds of stems per hectare of natural regeneration following high-severity fire in Southwest ponderosa pine forest. Haire and McGarigal (2008, 2010) had similar findings, indicating substantial natural regeneration even in large high-severity fire patches. Others have reported similar results outside of the Southwest in mixed-conifer and ponderosa pine forests. There are likely numerous mechanisms for this, including seed survival (which may occur more often than some assume), dispersal by animals, and dispersal by wind.

Chad Hanson, Researcher
University of California-Davis
Cedar Ridge, California

Williams and Baker argue that there is a direct link: dense even-aged stand structure they reconstruct from the GLO records equals higher-severity fire. And that is in Front Range ponderosa pine dominated forests where they did their study. So now let's compare that to what's happening in today's fires: high-severity fires do not equal dense even-aged forest stands. In fact, far from it; they result in huge treeless landscapes. Now Baker has acknowledged that this is a topic that needs more research, but I suggest that it is a huge hole in their entire model. To explain it, they have to suggest that currently it is too warm, or too dry, or that 10 years is not enough time to see the dense even-aged structure yet. But I say that this makes their model, their entire thesis, questionable. I think it needs repeating: ponderosa is not lodgepole.

Peter Brown
Director, Rocky Mountain
Tree-Ring Research
Denver, Colorado

If the goal is maintaining the viability of species, it is virtually impossible to manage for the future without deep reference to the past, as species are linked at the genetic level to the selective forces of their historical habitat and many will go extinct as the future becomes increasingly unlike the past.

If people care about biological diversity, or even about food for humans, we have to hope that we can reshape the emerging future to be as much like the past as possible. It seems odd to me that conservation organizations might back away from wanting to maintain as much historical ecosystem structure and function, and as many "historical" species as possible. Evolutionary history, embedded in gene frequencies, does not allow species to recreate themselves as they like for some new future envisioned by people. History matters to them.

William L. Baker
Geography professor
University of Wyoming
Laramie, Wyoming

This whole discussion illustrates what is wrong with fire management. What part of "fire is an inevitable part of the ecosystem" don't people understand? Discussing fire severity, salvage sales, etc., is a moot point. We need to make our communities more fire permeable -- so that the fires, whatever the severity, can move through them with minimal destruction. This is done not through a simplistic "thin" or "no thin" debate but with a strategy that combines all actions available. The bottom line is climate change will make fires even more intense than in the past -- arguing about fire intensity is useless. Fires of all intensities are here to stay and we need to find a way to live with it psychologically.

Mary M. Kwart
(Retired) prescribed fire specialist,
National Park Service
Ashland, Oregon