On Wildfire

July 17, 2021 (top) and same date previous year (bottom); photo courtesy BJ Swanson

Wildfire season in the Western U.S. is off to an early and strong start this year. I hear from many folks that certain regions are up to six weeks earlier than average. So what are the major factors in timing and severity of these natural (design feature) events? And how should we think about fire as dominion-takers, garden-tenders, and fire-makers ourselves? Future articles will be dedicated to pointing out the many plants, animals, and ecosystem processes that rely on periodic fire, discussion of the challenges of understanding longitudinal fire data, prescribed burns, and more. 

Many ecosystems in the temperate zones of the world burn regularly. Depending on the type of climate, topography, and resulting vegetation, some places see fire more often than others. For example, the long-leaf pine ecosystems of the Southeast, like the loblolly pine forests of the Carolinas, see short period fire regimes or fire return intervals. These areas burn more frequently but with lower intensity. This inverse relationship is a good rule of thumb. The more frequent the fire in an area, the tendency for the fire to be less severe. These short interval fires tend to not be “stand-replacing” but are more often ground or forest understory fires.  

Longleaf pine, copyright Colin May

Use this fire regime table to find out the fire interval and severity in your home and nearby ecosystems. 

Like all things ecological, wildfire’s impact on the landscape and its plants, animals, water, and soil is complicated. A good friend’s recent thoughtful question helps to unpack these relationships. He asked:  Isn’t the Sand Mountain Fire (Latah County, Idaho, 2021, part of the the Leland Complex Fire) in a managed forestland? I keep reading “heavily forested” and “dense trees”…is this forest not being thinned?

This question is super helpful because it identifies forest management practices as playing an important role in fire ecology. They certainly do. There is an oversimplification out there that the greater the fuel load the more severe the fire. Following this logic, the more “fuel” we remove via logging, road-building, prescribed burning, the less likely and less severe the fire. 

The Palouse Ranger District (Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest), where this fire continues to burn, is probably the most heavily managed (thinned, recreation, road-building) National Forest land in all of North Idaho. So, why is the Sand Mountain Fire burning? According to our logic above, the 2000+ acre fire should have been simple to contain or even ideally would have burned itself out of fuel before growing to this size.

Fire needs three things: fuel, oxygen, and an ignition source

Fuel should be broken up into at least 2 categories: fine fuels (needed to start fires) and coarse woody debris (downed trees, standing dead). These fuels are further broken down into size classes (diameter of fuel) and organized by the time required to fully dry this fuel, if live at time of fire onset (see graphic). We could definitely distinguish other features such as the thickness of the duff layer as important, but we will limit ourselves to these two for now.

A fire gets going because of fine fuel, wind (oxygen), and a spark. And so a forest that is dry, has fine fuel, and a spark will lead to fire. Thinning can help reduce risk of a fire moving if the fire stays on the ground and there is no wind. However, thinning can also increase the chance of fire. Removing trees (especially larger ones) dries out the forest as moisture trapped by a forest canopy and understory now lies exposed and evaporates.

Coarse scale view of forestland checkerboard ownership and management matrix
Finer scale view of same forestland east and around Sand Mountain Fire.

 

 

 

 

 

When news folks talk about dense forest and this particular fire there has been some information lost in translation. Many landscapes have a patchy matrix, especially those close to towns or with a significant number of rural residents. Much of the Western US that is forestland managed by the US Forest Service exists in a shockingly regular checkerboard pattern. This pattern reflects mixed-ownership (private, state, federal) and mixed-management.  There are some areas of dense trees and other areas of clearcut and other areas of thinned forest. There are also meadows and creek and river valleys of various vegetation types. In today’s climate and especially this year (dry spring) any and all of this will burn given the three primary ingredients: fine fuel, wind, spark. And so bottom line, fire is not a result of management (good or bad) necessarily, it is primarily a result of climate. 

These fires, like most forest fires (not grassland or shrubland fires) were caused by a series of lightning strikes. Where lightning strikes, like where wildfires occur, is almost completely unpredictable. And so preventative management of forestland is incredibly difficult.

With this much variability on the landscape is it honest to say that any given fire season is typical or atypical? Or a better question, what does the current pattern of wildfire look like in an historical context? These questions and their answers have political and economic ramifications. I hope to provide clarity here in future installments. 

An important starting place for addressing most of these questions center on the question, “Is this forest healthy? Some officials and industry folks want particular forests deemed unhealthy so that certain management practices may be put into place that “heal them.” Other officials and ecologists want to deem the same forests healthy to reduce these management efforts or perhaps to employ different management techniques.

And so how is this ambiguous term, forest health defined?

The USFS defines forest health as the production of forest conditions which directly satisfy human needs and by resilience, recurrence, persistence, and biophysical processes which lead to sustainable ecological conditions. 

The Journal of Sustainable Forestry defines forest health more simply but then adds some important next steps: If forest health is to be approached scientifically, it must be defined and measured. Forest health is a condition of forest ecosystems that sustains their complexity while providing for human needs. We developed this broad definition because a wisely acceptable definition is lacking, and forest health is a focal point in discussions of how to sustain forest ecosystems in the United States. Steps for measuring forest health are: (1) select a representative set of indicators for a particular ecosystem; (2) establish baseline data, such as a historical range of variability; (3) develop standards against which to compare current conditions; and (4) establish a monitoring program to assess current conditions and modify baseline data as new trends develop.

Photo point for the 1988 Yellowstone Fire. Regrowth and pond in the same location in 1989, one year later. NPS/Jim Peaco

I like the second definition because of its simplicity. And I agree that certain indicators should be chosen and they should be chosen based on their importance to the ecological integrity of the ecosystem of study. For example: water temperature, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, thickness of duff layer.  By defining forest health creationally (biblically, wisely, in the context of fire being a design feature and important for many creatures and ecosystem processes) we can avoid relying on poorly collected or contested fire data of the past (of which there is much). More importantly this puts us in a position to see fire not only as “devastating,” which it can be, but also as restorative and essential

Good Nature Reading

Another crucial first step in cultivating the next generation of reformed environmentalists is giving them good nature literature to read. In line with my post on putting on outdoor camps, which is necessarily place-based, a good nature read will most certainly be focused on a narrow geographical area. I will break these reads into two categories: 1) non-fiction and 2) novels. Snow Falling on Cedars and East of the Mountains by David Guterson are excellent recent examples of place-based novels where landscape and ecosystems feature prominently. 

Scores of 20th century non-fiction works make the grade (far less in recent years). For my first recommendation I commend William Warner’s 1976 Pulitzer Prize winning Beautiful Swimmers. You can listen to Chapter 1 here. Warner is a student of both the working crab fisher (watermen) and his quarry. He gives a thorough treatment of the Bay’s geography and intertidal ecology. His main thrust however is the lifestyle and culture of the watermen and a very detailed life history of Callinectes sapidus, the sweet and savory blue crab. 

The main reason I commend this work, other than it being well-written, is the fact that Warner intentionally includes man in this work that would otherwise be considered a conventional ecosystem exploration. We are necessarily a part of the ecosystem we inhabit. Odum, acclaimed and prescient ecosystem ecologist, makes this point well.

As Christians, to exclude people from any ecosystem consideration should be a non-starter. Even uninhabited islands and stretches of pack-ice bear our imprint. We are after all  creatures, part of Creation, and we have an important role (dominion-taker, garden-tender). Ecologists are on the right track when they refer to us as a hyperkeystone species. Bob Paine coined this phrase. The Atlantic did a fair piece on the concept and Paine in 2016. We are certainly more than just a hyperkeystone species, but I think this ecological designation can be helpful in thinking about the dominion mandate in the ecological realm. 

Careful, this book will have you longing for a summer day, picnic table spread with newspaper, buckets of freshly steamed blue crabs, corn on the cob, and plenty of soft butter. It might even convince you of the need take a paddle in an estuary somewhere. Dig in and enjoy.

Beautiful Swimmers Chapter 1 pdf

Outdoor Camps

As a student of ecology it has always flummoxed me that the school year as such does not align with the seasons in such a way that creatures of various kinds can be studied while in their prime. At least this is so in the northern temperate and polar zones. 

And so summer is the time to train up the next generation of reformed environmentalists. I have had the good pleasure of doing this locally through the brick and mortar school where I teach, Logos School.  You should organize one of these at your school or homeschool coop if it does not already exist. 

The first step in building up this generation as “Reformed” environmentalists is getting them out and comfortable exploring natural and wild areas. Too much time has been spent on learning about nature from PBS Kids or via an iPhone or Android app. Kids need to sweat and get bit by mosquitoes and stung by stinging nettles.

In addition to needing “time in the field,” today’s youth have a knowledge scale deficiency. They have a broad understanding of the environmental sciences on a global level. They know more about coral reefs than the boomers, but this understanding does not translate into deeper local knowledge. Youth landscape and ecology knowledge is shockingly thin and very much lacking at the local level where relationship to the land is most crucial. The boomers know the land they inhabited as youth and they know it first-hand. I remember my Dad telling me about exploring caves where he spent much of his childhood near Front Royal, Virginia.

If you need some empirical evidence to substantiate this claim I highly recommend, Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv. In it he details the negative consequences of a childhood devoid of free exploration of nature. 

The camps I did were very simple. The first consisted completely of three morning outings (4-6 hours each) to different nearby natural areas. Students ranged from 11-14 years old. They brought binoculars, water, snacks, and field guides. We explored each area keying in on birds and plants for observation and identification. Many of these kids were first time naturalists or birders. Our list of species from this year is here:Logos Natural History Camp Species List 2021-2.

For plant field guides we used the following, as Northern Idaho has a very similar climate and plant community to coastal Oregon and Washington: 1)Plants of the Pacific Northwest; 2) Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest. The best guide for birds is, of course, Sibley’s Western guide but any others will do. It’s always fun to see the variety of field guides that the kids bring. They all have some strengths and weaknesses. 

I have gotten quite a few requests for an adult version of this camp, which I am considering for next year.

NEXT POST: Outdoor Skills Camp

NOTE: If the title “Reformed Environmentalist” is offensive to you, I will be making the case why I think this kind of title is necessary in an upcoming post. 

 

A Glimpse into Dolphin Intelligence or A Siamese Connexion with a Plurality of Other Mortals

 From Scott McVay’s, A Siamese Connexion with a Plurality of Other Mortals, prelude to Stephen Kellert’s The Biophilia Hypothesis.

The rich phrase (in italics above) comes to us from Ishmael and his precarious connection to Queequeg during the processing of a harpooned whale aboard ship in Melville’s Moby Dick. 

McVay shares several brief case studies where rare individuals have come to know certain animals or groups of species quite intimately. More recent examples of this include Joe Hutto (My Life as a Turkey). McVay spent several years researching marine mammal intelligence in New York and the Virgin Islands. The following is one extraordinary encounter he was fortunate enough to witness.

It was April of 1964. I was working for a laboratory with research sites in Coconut Grove and St. Thomas. We were studying the brain, behavior, and communication of the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). What I am about to describe occurred outside the protocol of our regular work at the St. Thomas laboratory. 

A bright, educated woman lived a few miles away. A connoisseur of art, she was an accomplished athlete who would sometimes spend hours swimming in the waters below her home. She puzzled at how a porpoise could purportedly save a struggling non-swimmer at sea (even though three cases were known from the literature and we had two further accounts in letters to the laboratory). First, one assumes that the drowning person would be thrashing and disoriented. Second, if he saw a fin, he might think it a shark. Third, even if this panicked person had the self-possession to grasp the dorsal fin, exhaustion would soon slacken his grip. She persistently queried the director of the institute, “How could a drowning person be rescued by a porpoise?”

One Sunday she was invited to the lab with its tide pool and a female porpoise perhaps three or four years old. What follows was recorded in air and underwater and it was filmed. 

The woman entered the water with this conundrum crowding out any other thought. She happened to lie face down in the water assuming “the dead man’s float.” From behind, the porpoise swam onto the woman’s back and clasped its flippers firmly under her arms and began to propel her around the pool with powerful tail flukes. At first she resisted. She was unused to letting go or losing control. She noticed, however, that she could see and breathe. The weight and vertical stroking of the flukes lifted her head clear of the water as the two – joined by a belly-to-back Siamese connexion – made a circuit of the pool to the gasps of onlookers. She “let go.” She told me she relaxed as deeply and fully as she ever had. The porpoise made two complete circuits of the pool and then shot straight up in the air, releasing the woman gently and precisely  on her knees on the cement lip of the pool. She said softly, “I understand.”

 

Biophilia

One of the most intriguing and intellectually satisfying philosophies regarding our stewardship responsibilities comes to us from myrmecologist and world renown ecologist and writer E.O. Wilson and then social ecologist, Stephen Kellert. Biophilia literally means, affinity for life, or as Wilson puts it, the “innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes.” Wilson did not coin the term, but he asked important questions, most notably, why do we (humans) exhibit this trait? 

Kellert took Wilson’s strong inference and developed the hypothesis, quite broadly. This idea has since been incorporated most successfully into the field of landscape architecture; the idea being, if we use those aspects of nature that are attractive or nourishing or refreshing to people we can create outdoor and indoor spaces that will serve multiple benefits most importantly increasing a sense of well-being.

Biophilic Design Trailer

A landscape architect friend of mine turned me on to this publication by Terrapin Bright Green, a company dedicated to incorporating biophilic principles and other sustainable practices into their design work. As they state in this document, ” the intent of this paper is to articulate the relationships between nature, science, and the built environment so that we may experience the human benefits of biophilia in our design applications. The paper presents a framework for biophilic design that is reflective of the nature-health relationships most important in the built environment – those that are known to enhance our lives through a connection with nature.”

So, what does the reformed environmentalist care about landscape architecture and the built environment. Not much really if I am being totally honest. However, I care deeply about encouraging the church (my students, friends, Christians in my sphere of influence) to consider Creation and our role in its tending with new eyes. I believe the biophilia hypothesis provides a philosophically coherent framework for people and Christians in particular to explore stewardship in a powerful way. 

Its all about design . . . 

Our Lust for Dichotomy

We live in a polar world. Our planet has two poles. Our understanding of electricity and magnetism rely on an understanding of opposing forces. Positive and negative charges allow us to model current and chemical bonds. Polarity is a very helpful concept. When it comes to understanding complex ecological dynamics and policy decisions, however, polarity should be invoked only when it reflects reality.

Polarity is helpful in geography and navigation because we do have a North and a South Pole. It is helpful in understanding the relationships between atoms because we do have particles that attract and repel each other. Even polarity at the chemical level, when studied thoroughly, ends up being more complicated than simply positive protons and negative electrons. 

Merriam Webster defines polarity as: the quality or condition inherent in a body that exhibits opposite properties or powers in opposite parts or directions or that exhibits contrasted properties or powers in contrasted parts or directions : the condition of having poles. This tracks with penguins and polar bears and sub-atomic particles. It does not track well with thoughtful decision making in the midst of myriad variables.

The more commonly discussed societal polarity is defined as, the presence or manifestation of two opposite or contrasting principles or tendencies. Unfortunately, this societal polarity has become the hallmark of the media’s portrayal of any and all discussion of conservation issues. There is a long history here, one that I have been reading a bit about in the book The Wizard and the Prophet. This history of preservationist vs. extractionist philosophies combined with the media’s obsession of discussing all policy from a national perspective (as opposed to state or local) give most of us an oversimplified, cut and dried, perspective on environmental issues. Its option A (kills all of the wildlife) or option B (kills none of the wildlife). Or its option 1 (regulates private industry to its demise) or option 2 (lets big business run amok). 

Ecosystems are far more complicated than water molecules. When land-managers or developers propose dichotomous alternatives or paint their project proposal as black and the only alternative as white, they’ve lost sight of the scale at which they are operating.

 

As an example, consider the media’s portrayal of wind energy. Its an angel in many outlets and the devil in others. Dams are like this as well. All good or all bad. (Read McGee’s paper on dams here). By pre-determining that a mechanism or type of infrastructure is good or bad ignores the landscape, the water table, the topography, the humidity, the wind patterns, the biodiversity. Basically, it ignores Creation (big C) and states that our creation (little c) is of such quality and forethought that where it goes really does not matter.  

This societal polarity also shows up inappropriately in how natural disasters, especially wildfires, are covered by the media. Wildfires are naturally occurring, ecologically important phenomena. They also cause significant property damage, especially in the state of California, over the last 5-10 years and the most recent bushfire season in Australia. But there is so much more to them. They aren’t simply a completely torched area inside a massive perimeter. When a fire is reported to have burned millions of acres, that is the perimeter. What has happened inside the perimeter is highly variable. Some of it will have benefitted certain species or ecological systems, some of it will have hurt certain species and ecological processes. In other words, there is no room for a presumption of uniformity in ecological considerations. There are rules. There are principles, but there is not uniformity. We need to come to each situation with that operating assumption. 

And so, read popular articles about energy and the environment, about conservation and development with this in mind. Does the author detail the local ecology or paint with much broader brush? Both authors and readers can be guilty of drawing generalizations out of local contexts or ignoring local contexts altogether. Polarity is great for a boxing match or a water molecule. As a strategy for dealing with air, land, and water issues in a thoughtful way it falls short. 

De-Extinction and the Return of the American Chestnut

American Chestnut // Illustration via U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705

I spent the summer of 2000 in the woods of western North Carolina. Northern parulas  sang outside of our cabin, presciently named “Ponderosa.” It rained a lot. In addition to leading boy scouts on 20 mile hikes and down the Little Tennessee river in canoes, and rafting on the Nantahala, I got to know a few locals. The mystique of Appalachia still calls to me from that time and from growing up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

One of the coals that stokes the fire of that miraculous place (nearly 500 native species of trees in the state of North Carolina) is a brief visit to an old barn. Its loft, an ancient goldmine. A remnant of a former time. Stacks of straight grain, rot resistant, American chestnut. 

That’s the closest I’ve ever come to sidling up to this functionally extinct tree, that once filled the eastern forests from Georgia to Maine. I may have seen an Allegheny chinkapin, (same genus as American chestnut, Castanea), at some point, but I can’t be sure of it. Today there are at least three different efforts to bring back this mast-producing hardwood. Mast is a term that means the fruit of forest trees or shrubs. 

A dying chestnut tree photographed in 1916 in North Spencer, New York. (Cornell University)

The three efforts are the: 1) cross-breeding effort; 2) the genetic modification effort; and 3) the hunt down the last few mature resistant trees and collect their seeds effort. This third effort often gets left out of the reporting. I assume this is because it has the least funding and involves the least amount of science wizardry.

This species very well may be the first de-extinction that I am aware of. If government approval moves forward we could see action taken beyond trials to releasing hybrid and genetically modified chestnuts into the wild this year. If you are as fascinated by this project as I am you will find some good fodder below.

A recent article regarding the “ great nut race ,” (Washington Post, 2019). The two big players in the race are the American Chestnut Foundation and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Video talk by SUNY ESF professor Dr. William Powell on the hybridization  chestnut restoration effort, one of several projects highlighted in a Tedx De-extinction conference held in 2013.

Apparently no GMO effort is immune from association with Monsanto

My favorite of the three is the least funded and most conservative effort. As in let’s get out there and find disease resistant trees, collect their seeds, and grow them. I just ordered a handful of seeds from ArcheWild at $5 a pop. I will be leaning on my knowledgeable friends from the local university arboretum and anyone else I can talk into helping with this project. I’d really love to have some bonsai American chestnuts. I am pretty sure they can’t handle the winters up here. 

I think it goes without saying that bringing a species back comes with many exciting and troubling considerations. The efforts of ArcheWild and others working to collect and grow/breed disease resistant American chestnut trees from existing blight resistant trees seems to me the best Christian response. The four Cs: concern for creation and cautious consideration dictate that we should: 1) err on the conservative side by not ignorantly introducing new genes into the eastern forests; 2) utilize a solution that pre-exists our high-tech efforts. This response is humble and patient, working with Creation and its design principles. 

Coping with Big Numbers and Big Declines in Biodiversity

When I first read this big headline last fall: 3 Billion Birds Lost Since 1970, I had barely even begun to process the previous big environmental headline just a few months prior, which was, if you remember: 1 Million Species at Risk of Extinction.  I am currently of the opinion that these wide-sweeping types of studies are too big to effect any type of practical change. It seems as if the Ecology news now mimics the Economy news. The financial debt and the ecological debt we have accrued are both incomprehensibly large. And we are absolutely immune to the headlines. 

When I was a residence assistant in college we called it “sign blindness.” Put up a sign announcing an event happening in the dorms and by 2nd semester the freshmen had seen so many of these signs they became absolutely blind to them. This is the case with environmental alarmism. This is not a critique of the environmental movement. This is true of media across issues, on both sides of the aisle.  Rather than massive sweeping studies we need to prioritize our problems. We need a rubric for determining which ecological problems most deserve our attention. We need to do this locally first and then regionally. 

Several important categories worth putting forward in a Top Ten list for your local area:

  1. Water quality 
  2. Air quality 
  3. Acres of natural landscape
  4. Biodiversity 
  5. Soil fertility 

A recent article from the American Bird Conservancy took the 3 Billion Birds report and pulled the five American birds with the sharpest population declines. By presenting a limited number of priority species in this fashion land owners, wildlife managers, scientists, politicians, and the informed public at large can better digest the state of affairs and move forward thoughtfully.