Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Killing trees

I love fire. I doubt that either of the two (maybe three) of you who regularly follow this journal ever wondered (from reading my posts for the past 5 years) about my positions on the implementation of prescribed fire in our fire-meidated systems. In the past few years, I've gained an uncanny ability to turn any innocent conversation about almost anything to a discussion of either fire or wine. I can talk about either rather voluminously and passionately (i.e., ad nauseum); as the night wanes, passion waxes, and fire and wine can take on poetic forms borrowed reliably from Horace, Ovid or Homer.

But it's come to my attention in recent years that not everyone who applies fire really understands fire or even how to apply it properly. Oh, through this medium I've ranted against land managers, who, scared of scarring trees, try to burn woodlands on 70% humidity days following a rain event which results in a stupid blackline around 500 acres, then labeled as target. I don't think I've ever written about the other side of the spectrum.

In Greek, there's a construction found in a single word that represents "there are those who..."--an efficient and succint way of labeling a fingerpointing incident. While we don't have that concise construction in English, I will proffer with the same accusing finger that there are those who burn under extreme conditions, resulting in inherently damaging fires that impact rather fragile, compromised landscapes (fire suppression, intense timber harvest, grazing history). In the past four years, I've encountered thick, dense, overstocked and trashed out woodlands that desperately need thinning only to be burned under conditions that do not kill canopy trees, conditions that don't even put the canopy in the hospital (which would allow light to the woodland floor during the early growing season), a practice which can leave behind a barren and desolate landscape. In many thousands of acres of Ozark woodlands, the tree canopy has closed in so densely that even after a fire has removed the countless years of leaf litter, the canopy trees leaf out so quickly that light never reaches the ground floor.

Maybe this is less of an informative post than a request to those who plan to implement prescribed fire for ecosystem restoration projects: know your prescription.

If your goal is to maximize biodiversity by increasing light to the woodland floor, and your canopy is measured at 90-100% closed, you'll need to either thin out the fire intolerant trees (like scrappy little maples or hackberries) or send a stand-replacing fire through parts of the area. If you don't kill some trees, or at least set them back to the point that they don't leaf out completely in the spring, canopy cover will preclude ground flora popping through the bare soil. While this may sound mercenary, and likely unpopular with those who hate fire, positive results can come from certain, selective, and deliberate killing or damaging out-of-context trees. I'm not promoting clearcutting, timber harvest, or even salvage logging, but in certain prescribed situations, hot, stand-replacing fires are vital to the sustainability of a biodiverse natural community. You can't just burn because it's a good burn day, you have to really know and understand your prescription, how fire works on your landscape. You can promote biodiversity by implementing fire with this result:

Or scorch the earth for a season like this:

It's all in understanding your landforms, your fuel load, your vegetation types, your natural communities, your land use histories. In overgrazed, deer-infested woodlands in the Ozarks, hot, late spring fires are probably not the best prescription for maximizing biodiversity. Damaged systems throughout the Ozarks have been treated with fire and no other means of management, which has resulted in a depauperate ground flora--spare twigs of grass, generalist woodland species. [I won't point to textbook examples of these places because I'm nice.] The whole landscape needs to be assessed before crafting a fire prescription: burn too hot and you'll sterlize the soil and still not allow enough light to reach the floor. Burn too cool and you still won't do a lick of good for the ground flora. You have to know fire, understand fire, obsess about fire, think about how fire moves on a landscape, envision fire consuming biomass. There is no other process that can mimic fire and its biophysical and chemical properties. (I probably sound like a creepy religious cultist for fire. Hmmm...maybe I am? Mwahhahahha.)

Of course, we're now officially well out of spring fire season (sigh...) and into the time of year when it's safe to burn off all those cedar slash piles on glades. Burn them now, before it's too late, because the surrounding woods will not burn. Wait too long and you'll end up with a tangled mess of cedar skeletons, Rhamnus and oak sprouts so ugly and disgusting that no clearcut can even compete for the "Miss Out of Context Award."


Anonymous said...

I do think there are more than 2-3 that follow your post on a regular basis :) However, I do prefer my mead over any red wine alternatives.

Allison Vaughn said...

You do love mead! I've tried it a few times in England and almost went into sugar shock. I've also tried barley wine at my watering hole here in Columbia. Too sweet, too high in alcohol. I'm getting really annoyed with this recent trend in pinot towards high alcohol wine. I can drink a lot of wine, but I can't drink a lot of alcohol or I start slurring my speech, which I don't like. Those 14% pinots coming out of Oregon are just too much.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you are correct; mead is sweet & can give you a buzz rather quickly; however, the satisfaction of making it yourself with products off the farm, is like Martha would say "priceless".

Allison Vaughn said...

I understand that completely. Just made a homemade pizza with kale and broccoli grown from seed in my little clay soil backyard. One day in the very near future (re: fall), I'll be making my first batch of Norton (and aging it in the greenest white oak barrel I can find so it will taste like a chainsaw).