Health and Beauty Burning
The smell of wet charcoal pricks the breeze drifting up the west slope of the Bitterroot Valley.
The aftermath.

Oozing pitch-blobs soothe bare wood where flame has scorched away the bark. Some ponderosa pines are dropping their needles from heat stress.

Just across the road the hundred-year-old Douglas-firs mass in seeming luxuriance. Their branches extend all the way to the ground -- just the sort of place an elk could hide. The trunks are so close together you literally can't see the forest for the trees.

One stand was shaped by natural processes and is on its way to health; one stand is artificially-sustained and ailing. Which is which? Fire ecologist Steve Arno says it's the lush stand of Doug fir that's out of place and in trouble. He points to the low branches as "ladder fuels" which will burn from the ground up into the forest crown. Dwarf mistletoe, an inconspicuous native parasite, has provoked many trees to grow brushy "witches brooms" that ruin the timber value and burn fast and hot. Crowded trees of roughly the same age will stalemate in the competition for sun, water and nutrients.

The hottest spot in the burned area tells another story. Just two months after the fire, grass and wildflowers like the yellow Arnica already swathe the ground. A black grasshopper matched to its new habitat skips across charred logs and sticks. The surviving ponderosas will heal and grow larger in an open, park-like stand -- partially resembling how it was before the pioneers arrived.

A Burning Need

Steve is not merely a casual admirer of the sixty-acre fire's aftermath; he belongs to the Intermountain Fire Lab team that planned and ignited the burn. He disagrees with complaints that prescribed fire is "unnatural." Excluding fire from the landscape has been radically unnatural, he says. Fire has been at work since the dawn of time, and plants and animals have evolved to not merely cope with fire, but depend on it.

But because these woods are now so dense, an unchecked blaze would completely destroy the stand instead of cleaning it up (This is what happened in Yellowstone in 1988.) So before Steve and his colleagues could burn part of the site, the smallest trees, especially the fire-sensitive Douglas-fir, were commercially logged. The researchers hired several outfits to try different methods. These included logging with horses and a specially-equipped farm tractor to minimize impact on the land.

This "thinning from below" is the opposite of the long-standing practice of highgrading, or taking the biggest and best trees and leaving the rest.

Logging with this modified farm tractor causes even less soil damage than a team of horses.

Sacrifice a Few for the Health of Many

This site is a demonstration of the Forest Service's new "ecosystem management" approach, which works with native species and natural processes to manage the woods. In spite of the term "restoration ecology," scientists know they cannot precisely recreate the preindustrial landscape. But they do think they can restore healthier ecological function. People worry about baby birds and chipmunks getting burned in a prescribed fire. But as one wildlife biologist bluntly put it, "Individuals don't matter. Populations do."

In forests, Steve contends, trees will die and decay, returning nutrients to the soil. Insects will kill some trees. Fire will burn a few. But the emphasis is on the "some" -- as a whole, the community survives and thrives. Instead of decrying the waste, he says we have to let these thing happen, and also become "high-tech hunter-gatherers," taking our share just as the bugs and lightning bolts do.

Thunderheads are building over Bitterroot Valley -- potential fire weather if the storm doesn't serve a big helping of rain with its lightning. A direct hit on the study area probably wouldn't do much damage, though. It would just continue the job Steve Arno has begun.