Fire and ancient forests belong together

by Matthew Koehler

The first time I walked through the burned part of western Montana's Lolo National Forest, smoke was still rising from its deep duff layer. It was a crisp bluebird October day in 2003, and I was leading a student monitoring team to document how the fire behaved as it raced through two different areas: the heavily logged lands of Plum Creek Timber Co., and the ancient spruce-fir forest on the adjacent Lolo National Forest.  

As we looked over Plum Creek's land, it became clear why crews fighting this fire had dubbed their lands "the black desert." All we could see were burned clear-cuts crisscrossed with a network of newly exposed logging roads. 

As we arrived at a remote Forest Service trailhead and began walking through the unlogged forest, the aroma of the still smoldering forest almost overpowered us as we took in the mysterious mosaic patterns made by fire as it had moved across the landscape.

While some people want us to think that all modern wildfires are bad, the truth is that our forests and wildlife evolved with fire, and that includes so-called "catastrophic" fire. Burnt forests are not the lifeless, unhealthy landscapes that some would like us to believe. 

Earlier this past summer, Richard Hutto, director of the Avian Science Center at the University of Montana, said he'd become aware of one of nature's best-kept secrets -- that "there are some plant and animal species that one is hard-pressed to see anywhere outside a severely burned forest." Indeed, at least 60 species of birds and mammals use burned forests. While the logging industry might call burned forests "destroyed," many critters call these same forests home. 

A few months after our monitoring trip, I received notice of the Forest Service's intent to log the Lolo as its first "Healthy Forests" project. Wouldn't you know it? The agency's plan was to cut down what was left of that same ancient spruce-fir forest that had burned or survived in such a beautiful mosaic.

At the time, Mark Rey, the former logging lobbyist who President Bush had picked to run the Forest Service, told a local paper that if environmental groups were successful in stopping these post-fire timber sales, "those moonscapes will stand as a monument to that idiocy."

Well, environmentalists were successful, and today, there are no monuments to our idiocy. Once the spring snows cleared, we organized a fieldtrip to the proposed logging site with forest officials and invited the public and media to come along. As our caravan finally came to rest far up in the mountains -- 15 miles from the nearest house -- I quickly got the sense that the forest supervisor knew this was not an appropriate place for a "healthy forests" logging project. A few weeks later, the timber sale was canceled.

Nowadays, when I return to this forest, it's with a rifle slung across my shoulder. Walking up the same trail in the cool, pre-dawn darkness, my headlight catching the steam from my quickening breath, I'm searching for elk.

Five years have passed since the wildfire, and as the sun rises, signs of a healthy and recovering ecosystem are everywhere: fir and lodgepole seedlings almost hip-high; the lightly charred bark of massive, fire-resident larch; the prehistoric call of the pileated woodpecker; the eerie bugle of a bull elk just over the ridge.

These are the healthy, recovering burnt forests that the logging lobbyists don't want you to know about, because these forests reveal a truth that belies their "moonscape" rhetoric.

As a childhood friend from Wisconsin and I finish quartering a cow elk, which was grazing on grasses and forbs rejuvenated by the wildfire, he turns to me and says,  "These burned forests are nothing like I would have expected listening to way some people talk so negatively about wildfire. Thanks for sharing this amazing experience with me." 

Our legs nearly buckle as we load 300 pounds of elk on our backs. We struggle through the backcountry and eventually reach the hiking trail through the old-growth spruce-fir forest, still standing as a monument to the healing powers of nature.

Matthew Koehler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org ). He is the executive director of the WildWest Institute in Missoula, Montana.

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