I am writing this coffee-enabled post from San Francisco International Airport, as I wait for the red-eye flight that will carry me away from California, a state I had never visited before this summer, a state of botanical wonders of which I have only seen a brief glimpse.
My internship with the John Muir Institute of the Environment (JMIE) at the University of California, Davis gave me the opportunity to know intimately the plants of Eldorado National Forest. As I hiked through dense shrubs and on dry, grassy hillsides, drove through the “moonscape” of a recently burned forest, and documented with my notebook and plant press the diversity of plant life of post-fire areas, my east-coast eyes were opened to the central role fire plays in the ecology and management of California’s forests.
Over the course of the summer I saw firsthand the plethora of invasive grasses that inhabit treated—meaning planted with Pinus ponderosa seedlings and sprayed with herbicides—areas of the 2004 Freds Fire. I also saw, as I crawled along the ground underneath dense Ceanothus integerrimus, what happens when large areas that have lost all their trees to high severity fires are not reforested.
Post-fire reforestation is a classic conundrum of human interference in natural systems. If we artificially regenerate forests, the results tend to be even-aged stands with little understory diversity. If we do nothing to burned areas, it may be many decades before trees become reestablished. In areas of high severity burns I cannot support the argument that we must do nothing and let nature take its course, for without the human interference of fire suppression many high severity fires would not have taken place. Fire suppression is partially responsible for the loss of the mature seed sources that facilitate natural stand regeneration in lower severity fires. With forests serving as important carbon sinks, it may be irresponsible for us to wait for nature to repair the damage done by the fires that, through policies influenced by our incomplete understanding of forest ecology, become larger and more destructive than they would naturally. And as fires grow larger and more devastating due to climate change, the implications of human errors in forest policy will become even greater. The question of what is “good” or “bad’ interference looms large in the field of fire ecology, as it does in any discussion of humanity’s relationship with the natural world (including other humans).
For now, I will return from philosophical musings to thoughts on practical forest management. What seems to be a good compromise is planting so-called “founder stands” in areas that have lost all seed sources to fire. These planted clumps of trees would be allowed to grow up and naturally reforest the surrounding shrubland. I witnessed the potential effectiveness of this technique while taking regeneration data in a small unplanted area bordered by trees that survived the 1992 Cleveland Fire. Though the shrubs were dense, seedlings and saplings were scattered throughout. A diverse, mixed-aged stand of trees—a forest—is growing.
Fire ecologists like Gabrielle Bohlman, the master’s student for whom I worked this summer, hope that the evidence they collect on post-fire regeneration will influence the United States Forest Service (USFS) to shift reforestation policy and practice away from herbicides and indiscriminate planting and towards methods that take into account the ways in which forests naturally recover from fire, and respect the beauty of plant diversity: grasses, forbs, shrubs, and trees. Though policy is lagging far behind science, I am proud to know that the data I collected this summer may contribute to badly needed changes in our policies of forest management.