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As summer wildfire season begins in earnest throughout much of the West, it’s important for the public and policymakers to recognize the important role that severely burned forests play in maintaining wildlife populations and healthy forests. Severely burned forests are neither "destroyed" nor "lifeless."
From my perspective as an ecologist, I have become aware of one of nature’s best-kept secrets – there are some plant and animal species that one is hard-pressed to see anywhere outside a severely burned forest.
Consider the black-backed woodpecker. This bird species is relatively restricted in its distribution to burned-forest conditions. Everything about it, including its jet-black coloration, undoubtedly reflects a long evolutionary history with burned forests. This (and many other) woodpecker species rely on the larvae of wood-boring beetles, some of which are so specialized that they have infrared sensors allowing them to detect and then colonize burning forests.
Many additional bird species, including the mountain bluebird, three-toed woodpecker, and olive-sided flycatcher, also reach their greatest abundance in severely burned forests. And then there’s the fire morel, which occurs only in severely burned forests. This has been a boom year for morel mushrooms at the local farmer’s market precisely because of last year’s severe forest fires in western Montana.
An appreciation of the biological uniqueness of severely burned forests is important because if we value and want to maintain the full variety of organisms with which we share this Earth, we must begin to recognize the healthy nature of severely burned forests. We must also begin to recognize that those are the very forests targeted for postfire logging activity. Unfortunately, postfire logging removes the very element – dense stands of dead trees – upon which many fire-dependent species depend for nest sites and food resources.
With respect to birds, the effects of postfire salvage harvesting are uniformly negative. In fact, most timber-drilling and timber-gleaning bird species disappear altogether if a forest is salvage-logged. Therefore, such places are arguably the last places we should be going for our wood.
We need to change our thinking when it comes to logging after forest fires. There is potential economic value in the timber, yes, but there are numerous other values in a burned forest. And the prospect of losing those values must be weighed against the potential economic gain that may accompany postfire timber harvest. Burned areas are probably the most ecologically sensitive places from which we might extract trees.
I am not at all opposed to responsible timber harvesting; it’s simply that there are numerous green-tree forests, especially those near homes and communities, that can be harvested sustainably and without anywhere near the ecological threat one faces when harvesting in a severely burned forest.
Severely burned forests are one of nature’s best-kept secrets because the public really hasn’t caught on to these facts yet. And I haven’t even touched on some of the more fascinating stories about plants and animals that are restricted to burned-forest conditions. Being unaware of these stories, people naturally want to harvest trees they see as otherwise wasted resources.
But nature doesn’t waste anything. Burned forests, especially severely burned forests, are forests that have been "restored" in the eyes of numerous plant and animal species and in the eyes of an informed public. The burned trees are essential for maintaining an important part of the biological diversity we value today, and are the foundation for the forests of the future.
So, while it may seem counterintuitive, trying to make a quick buck off the burned forests today is more like borrowing from the forests of tomorrow. Our forests and the biological legacy we leave to future generations will be diminished if we fail to listen to the birds.
RICHARD L. HUTTO is director of the Avian Science Center and professor of biology at the University of Montana. Learn more the University of Montana’s Avian Science Center at: http://avianscience.dbs.umt.edu.