Fire Recovery in Yellowstone Unnatural?

Yellowstone Fire Recovery : Brian Suderman photographerThis is turning into "fire" week here at the Park Remark. Today I read an editorial in the Washington Times titled "Forest restoration realities". The opinion asks that the government speed up the forest restoration process after a fire. After talking about the millions of acres burned in National Forests since 2000, the author then compares these acres to the historic fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988.

Thomas M. Bonnicksen, the author, was sent in 1988 by congress to investigate the Yellowstone fires. He does appear to know what he's talking about. A simple google search seems to validate his expert status. His argument: legislation to accelerate the restoration of burned forest lands would quicken removal of dead trees that otherwise would provide fuel for future wildfires and accelerate the planting of new trees to restore forests that burned. He also believes that the causes of the Yellowstone fires were unnatural, and the regrowth in those areas is just as unnatural.

At this point that I have to jump in and say "I disagree with you". It is important here to recognize that there is a giant difference between the National Forest Service and the National Park Service. Quite simply, the Forest Service sees trees as crops, the Park Service sees trees as assets. It makes sense that the Forest Service would want to remove as much burned lumber as they can after a fire, even with burn scars the trees are worth money! But the same management practice cannot be applied to the Park Service. Burned stands of trees in a natural area still provide life. Insects and fungus break down the wood, birds eat the insects, and hollows created in the trunks become homes for small animals and birds. All this happens while the forest regenerates from the ground up. No need to haul out the lumber for quick profit within a National Park.

When I finally review the book "Scorched Earth" later this week, I'll share with you the same conclusion that Mr. Bonnicksen presents in his article, that the fires of '88 in Yellowstone were unusually devastating because of a culmination of 150 years of misguided human fire management. But, to argue that the regrowth of these areas is just as unnatural is false. To assume that we can understand processes that may take 500 years or more to unfold is just shortsighted. In the short term, the dense regrowth may mean a greater risk of "big" fire. But in the long run, watch the amazing forest heal itself: healthier trees will grow taller and block the light from shorter trees. The shaded trees die, and the once dense forest opens up to new light. Over a long period of time this process repeats and repeats itself and eventually a very strong multi-tiered forest canopy is achieved. There is nothing healthier than that, and its happening everyday across the nation, the process protected inside our National Parks.


I haven't read the Washington Times article, though it sounds interesting. I was in Yellowstone in 1988 covering the wildlfires for The Associated Press, an assignment I'll never forget.

While my first trip to the park that summer was breathtaking for the "damage" that seemed to be raining down on the world's first national park, when I returned later that summer my reporting and interviews with fire ecologists gave me a greater appreciation for what was transpiring.

Yes, not all of the fires were naturally sparked. And yes, years of since-debunked applications of forest management had spawned ungodly amounts of fuel loads. That said, the park's landscape quickly rebounded from the flames. I recall writing a story late in August about the vegetation -- fireweed, mostly -- that was sprouting in many of the burned and singed areas. Even today, nearly 20 years later, the signs of regrowth are visible, intermingled with still-standing snags.

True, there are very thick stands of lodgepole pine courtesy of the '88 fires. And they'll be ripe for burning one of these days. What will be unnatural will be if we impede those fires and simply let the fuel loads grow unnaturally.