Research has been requested by Region One to define past and current conditions and frequencies of fire, determine ecosystem responses and conditions resulting from recent burns in riparian areas, and evaluate direct fire effects (e.g., from fire in riparian zones themselves) and indirect effects (e.g., from fires in uplands).
- What were the historic conditions, including historic fire frequency patterns, of riparian zones, and how do they compare with current riparian conditions and fire patterns?
- How do contemporary effects of fire in riparian zones vary by altitude, plant species composition (deciduous vs. coniferous, shrubs versus trees, natives vs. exotics), and surrounding vegetation (e.g., coniferous versus grassland uplands)?
- How can resulting data on historic fire patterns and current fire conditions and effects be used to restore riparian zones to conditions that support riparian species and appropriate fire intervals and to reduce fire risk?
Research and Development Approach
The need for information on riparian disturbance processes and vegetation patterns extends throughout the Region and ultimately should be provided for various stream types and geophysical settings. In 2001, we performed a pilot study on the Bitterroot National Forest (NF), trying out some practical approaches to stratifying riparian areas, gathering data, and making sense of the information.
We chose three biophysically similar drainages that varied in time-since-burning, and related this disturbance history to riparian plant community composition and structure, and to stream characteristics. Based on the results, we modified our sampling design. In 2002 and beyond, we are continuing work on the Bitterroot NF, Lolo NF, and other forests in the Western Montana Planning Zone.
Our ultimate goal is to quantify the linkages between disturbance history in the uplands and riparian zones of headwater drainages designated as endangered salmonid habitat to stream characteristics and ultimately, fish habitat. This project will provide fundamental ecological information currently lacking for Rocky Mountain ecosystems, and support Forest Plan revisions and long term management direction.
The project is funded by Region One/Bitterroot National Forest, the Bitterroot Ecosystem Management Project, and by the National Fireplan.
Numerous wildfires burned in riparian zones of western Montana in 2000, presenting opportunities to evaluate fire effects on a suite of riparian types. Geographic Information Systems databases of topography, stand inventories, treatment history, fire history, and ecological information have been compiled for Montana sites to stratify and choose potential study areas.
The first steps will include:
- Use historic or reference reach information to describe natural vegetation patterns and channel structure for each riparian type.
- Stratify stream reaches by type (using Rosgen or Montgomery-Buffington classifications) and basin area.
- Determine a set of potential field sites, burned and unburned for as many strata as feasible.
- Randomly sample a replicated set of field sites to evaluate vegetation and stream channel characteristics, disturbance history and fire effects, and fish community structure.
- Define the hydrologic and physical processes that operate in natural systems for each category.
Ultimately, we will describe how vegetation patterns, riparian processes, and fish communities have changed relative to historic conditions, and what the impact of fires at various times and severities was on the riparian systems.
At the same time, we will establish an efficient methodology for gathering this type of headwater drainage information that could be used throughout the Region to monitor management activities and disturbance events, and to predict longterm effects. For example, this process could be used to predict the effects of thinning or roadbuilding on headwater drainages in western Montana, and to model appropriate buffer zones for different activities, and different parts of the streams.
- First year: Descriptions of natural vegetation and stream reaches and stream stratifications; field sites selected.
- Second year: Publications and presentations describing riparian zones from existing databases; Riparian zone field sampling and characterization.
- Three to Five years out: Publications and presentations describing field and database comparisons of riparian zones; definitions of hydrologic and physical processes operating in natural streams; descriptions of vegetation patterns, riparian processes, and fish communities as a function of landscape and fire processes; workshops for managers describing efficient methodologies for gathering this type of information.
Accomplishments (Expected and Achieved)
- Collect datalayers on terrain, climate, roads, ownership, and historical fire history information for the Bitterroot NF (FY 00 and 01).
- Analyze this information in GIS context to describe 6th Hydrologic Unit Codes (HUCs) in terms of terrain, road and stream density, drainage patterns, and ownership to define clusters (strata) of similar HUCs ("like watersheds") (FY 01).
- Using available databases, describe potential pilot study streams, from the same group of "like watersheds," using watershed characteristics, and stream profiles. These streams will vary by wildland fire history (FY 01).
- In pilot streams (Sheephead, Martin, and Chicken Creek), we sampled vegetation and stream channels to determine stream and streamside characteristics (FY 01).
- In streamsides and adjacent uplands of pilot streams, we determined stand age structures and planned to sample fire scars (but none were found) (FY 01).
- Through the autumn, winter, and spring, samples were processed, data were entered and analyzed. We determined the appropriate sampling intensity for most variables and dropped sampling of certain variables that were uninformative.
- Using a rule-based method in a GIS, we determined a set of potential headwater drainages using a "like watershed" approach. Sites to date are on the Lolo and Bitterroot NF. We plan to sample 10-15 drainages in the field season of '02.
- We are field-evaluating the streams to determine whether they actually fit the rules, and then sampling drainages that fit the criteria (FY 02, 03?).
- Define the hydrologic and physical processes that operate in natural systems for each category (FY 03).
- Describe how vegetation patterns, riparian processes, and fish habitat have changed relative to historic conditions (FY 03).
- Establish an efficient methodology for gathering this type of headwater drainage information that could be used throughout the Region (FY 03).
Riparian Fire Research logo. Click on thumbnail for enlarged version.
Scientist use incremental bore test to determine age of tree recently burnt in forest fire. Click on thumbnail for enlarged version.
|The following hemispheric photographs were taken by a Fisheye Lens and a Nikon Coolpix 950 (click on each image for a larger version).
Martin Creek, Bitterroot NF, MT Burned in 1960's.
Chicken Creek, Bitterroot NF, MT.
Registered Image - Determined Azimuth and Zenith Increments, Cardinal Orientation, and Geo-spatial Reference.
Masked Image - Elimination of Topographic Interference Especially Necessary for Entrenched Streams.
Threshold Image - Enables Contrast Light/Dark Analysis of Shade Potential and Canopy Coverage.
Illustrates the different outputs between Chicken Creek and Martin Creek's Hemispheric Photo Analysis.