Cinder-dry conditions fueled by warming temperatures are expected to increase wildfires in quantity and intensity every season across most of the US, with the last two years seeing particularly destructive fires.
The initial toll on structures, humans and wildlife is always severe and costly, but environmentalists see an ecological benefit in the renewal of a charred forest habitat.
Rebirth of biodiversity throughout burned areas includes everything - from vegetation, mammals, birds, and amphibians to insects and microbes.
There is specific concern for the rare black-backed woodpecker.
The John Muir Project petitioned the Department of Interior for Endangered Species Act in recent years for protection of the bird, which lives in charred habitat across the Sierra Nevada range, eastern Cascades in Oregon and the Black Hills of South Dakota.
A pertinent report released this month entitled, “Nourished by Wildfire: The Ecological Benefits of the Rim Fire and the Threat of Salvage Logging,” was produced by the Center for Biological Diversity and the John Muir Project.
The study criticizes plans by the US Forest Service to log 30,000 acres of burned stumps, snags and trees, while explaining the importance of fires in the Sierra Nevada ecosystem for maintaining biodiversity.
“Burned forests are not dead zones, but rather teem with life,” said the Center’s Justin Augustine. “The reflex reaction to log after forest fires directly contradicts decades of scientific research showing both the immense ecological importance of post-fire landscapes and the significant harm that can occur when such areas are logged.”
The Center’s statement put it this way:
The moderate and high-intensity fire areas in conifer forest within the Rim fire created what is known as “complex early seral forest” — one of the rarest, most biodiverse habitat types in the Sierra Nevada. Not only do post-fire landscapes provide critical wildlife habitat; if not logged, they can also result in a forest that is naturally more resilient to climate change.
The repopulation of a forest “more resilient to climate change,” should be of intense interest to the forest service, given the fact that recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states climate change is increasing, with 95 percent certainty man is the cause.
Rather than promoting salvage-logging on such a large scale, the service should focus more intently on protecting water sources and forest health, which results in regrowth of biodiversity.
Furthermore, a report by wildlife.org published in 2012 said the timing is critical for forest-managing agencies to recognize the “ecological value of severely burned forests so that the public and the agencies under its trust can begin to accept [the ecological benefit] of mixed and high-severity fires.”
Dr. Chad Hanson, lead ecologist with the John Muir Project sees high-intensity fire areas as valuable, more rare and threatened than old-growth forests.
Hanson has been battling logging projects in the Sierra, seeking a minimum of a 60 acre buffer, for decades with minimal success.
Environmentalists, loggers and forest management agencies have held diametrically opposed positions on the value of forest habitats for wildlife since the days of the spotted owl.
The battle over charred habitat indicates little has changed in the dynamic between conservationists, federal agencies and human interest.