OSU: Forests unable to grow after wildfire

OSU: Forests unable to grow after wildfire

October 14, 2013


by Jayson Bailey of Chandler, Arizona

Communities for Healthy Forests

What if when the trees are gone, they’re gone? It might sound like a line from a Dr. Seuss book, but the reality is that for some wildfire ravished forests it’s true. Researchers have been studying the effects of increases in temperature and drought on post fire sites, and the findings might surprise you.

Researchers from Oregon State University concluded that moisture stress is a key limitation for conifer regeneration following stand-replacing wildfire, which will likely increase with climate change. This will make post-fire recovery on dry sites slow and uncertain. If forests are desired in these locations, more aggressive attempts at reforestation may be needed, they said.

The study focused on an area in the eastern Cascade range in Oregon that experienced a significant wildfire in 2002. Before the fire the area was almost exclusively covered by Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pines. The test site was left to its own devices. No salvage logging or replanting efforts were performed and the forest was left untouched and monitored. Nearly a decade later, almost no tree regeneration has occurred. Scientists with OSU’s Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society warn it could be a long time before the forest comes back. That is, if it ever does.

As we deal with changing climate systems and continued drought, researchers warn that similar situations may become commonplace, especially through the western United States. Low level forest areas that receive less moisture are at an increased risk. Once burned, these areas may never be able to fully regenerate on their own. Combine these limitations with increases in the severity and frequency of wildfires in recent years and the dangers are all too clear. The conifer forests throughout the western US could literally be disappearing.

So why then do forest management policies place so much emphasis on fighting fires and protecting wilderness areas from human disruption, but do little to prevent fires or help restore areas that have been affected by wildfire damage? Washington’s misguided attempts at protecting our forests have actually contributed to a situation that could drastically cut our forest lands by devastating amounts.

Budget cuts and government restrictions on preventative activities literally have the hands of those tasked with managing forest lands tied. Meanwhile the costs associated with fighting wildfires skyrockets as blazes become bigger and more aggressive each year.

In light of new scientific research, including the study by OSU researchers, it’s time we look to shift the focus from simply fighting fires to preventing them. Washington needs to accept the fact that our forests are at a greater risk than ever, and help support the experts tasked with caring for them. If the latest research has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t just wait until it’s too late. We have to take a proactive approach to preventing wildfires and improving the health and resiliency of our forests. Otherwise future generations might not be able to experience and enjoy our beautiful stands of trees.

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