Wildfires burning across the province of British Columbia are dominating the news during the summer of 2021. The smoke hadn’t cleared and private forest companies and the government’s BC Timber Sales division will soon announce their plans to expedite clearing the burnt forests. In the article – Salvage Logging British Columbia’s Wildfires – Will Wildlife Conservation and Science Matter? I expressed a concern whether science would play a role in protecting wildlife habitat in the logging of these burnt habitats.
Language like – “the forest fires were catastrophic”, “unprecedented damage”, “economic collapse”, “fire destroys forests”, “the impacts were devastating”, “we must salvage the timber before it rots”, “salvaging burnt timber is race against time”, “there is no time for drawn out public consultation”, “we will always meet the minimum standards for forest management”, “we are not required to use science”, “we will rely on Professional Foresters to protect wildlife values”, “we need to sanitize and clean up the forests to prevent outbreaks of forest insects” and “clearcutting forest fires is required to reduce fuel loading to prevent future fires” were all common phrases communicated by the forest industry, media and government.
Even fire ecologists and fire scientists used language like “unprecedented”, “ these fires are a result of climate change”, “it’s going to get worse” and “forest fires destroy the soil”. I even heard a government wildlife biologist say that wildlife doesn’t use burnt forests because the burnt forests become tangled and criss-crossed and it’s impossible for wildlife to get around in them. I heard others say that, “all the wildlife got displaced by fires” and that “wildlife abandoned the valleys”.
I’m not sure if it’s the optimist, the ecologist or the artist in me but I see the burnt forests for what they really are. A natural and necessary process that nature is adapted to handle. I see a burnt forest for the life and beauty it possesses, the future habitat that will develop and the abundance of life living in the burnt forest. I don’t’ see the recent scale of forest fires in B.C. as unprecedented destruction of the land but rather I see it as nature finally reverting back to what she is meant to do – right the wrongs of human interference in biodiversity.
For me, burnt forests are not dead, sterile zones of devoid of wildlife and plants. In fact, to me they are the complete opposite of that. The burnt forests are alive.
Tree cones survive the fire and this squirrel midden shows that squirrels are actively living in the burnt forest. If squirrels and other rodents are present, then so will their predators including birds of prey and small furbearers. But the squirrels need some cover and vertical standing trees for habitat.
New plants spring to life making use of small micro sites where the soil is moister.
Burnt forests still retain a lot of vertical structure (standing dead trees) for a variety of wildlife species including enough cover to reduce line of sight so large animals like moose, elk and bears feel secure knowing they are not exposed in the wide open when they forage around in their new habitat.
There are lot of deer still living in the burnt forest.
Fires burn with varying intensity which creates a variety of new micro topography features for different types of plants to regenerate on. Wherever fire burned up all the forest floor organic material, the dead needles soon carpet those areas as the process of replacing soil organics and protecting soil from erosion continues.
The hoof action of the large feet of a moose are acting to mix soil and incorporate organic material into the new forest floor.
Elk are helping to continue the process of nutrient cycling in the burnt forest.
Bunchberry will produce berries this year and the seeds will be spread around the forest by birds, bears and rodents that consume the fruits.
Fungi are one of the most important components of forest soils because they convert nutrients in the soil into the forms that trees can use. Soil fungi are thought to be the reason why northern hemisphere forests are as productive as they are. Soil fungi may be among the oldest living organisms in the world. These “morel mushrooms” are the fruiting structures of soil fungi whose job it is to spread spores so the underground fungi can colonize new zones within the forest. Soil fungi may not survive the harsh impacts of clearcutting and road building.
This small wetland located in the middle of the forest fire was protected by the wet habitat that surrounded it. This habitat will be home to amphibians and a source for water for many wildlife. Situated in the burnt forest surrounded by dead standing trees, this small piece of habitat will remain protected and functional. In the middle of a clearcut it will likely dry up and amphibians and other wildlife will not be able to benefit from its continued presence in the forest.
The fruiting “cups” of more soil fungi are sprouting up from an area that some would say is sterilized soil where the fire burned “too hot”.
Conifer seedlings carpet the forest floor in the burnt forest. A study done in the 2002 “Biscut Fire” in Oregon showed that “salvage logging” destroyed 71% of the new seedlings which meant that trees had to be artificially planted after logging instead of letting nature do it for free.
Moss completely carpets an area of forest floor where some say the fire has “cooked the soil”. All this was accomplished by nature in a matter of few months after the fire.
A small stream continues to flow through the burnt forest – running clear and pure.
Red needles blanket the forest floor helping to restore nutrients and providing protection from erosion.
Where some may say the fire burned the soil too hot and deep, others may see new possibilities for habitat for small wildlife species.
This is the artist in me…but to me that’s not a burnt tree. It’s a black bear looking at me. A symbol of the fact that a burnt forest is still home to wildlife.
More varieties of fungi and jelly molds seal over and help restore soil that was subject to intense heat. Nature has positive responses for everything. Even in the most intense forest fires, rarely does the heat pulse that penetrate into the soil exceed temperatures that are lethal to living plant tissue (60deg C) for more than 2cm into the ground. Biodiversity needs the variety of disturbances that fire creates. There is no good and bad in nature.
A small wet area in the forest recovers quickly after the fire. Even this small patch of willow shrubs (middle left) survived and they will help create more food for moose in the coming years if they are left to grow in this undisturbed environment.
Charred logs attract certain type of insects that only lay their eggs in burnt wood. Woodpeckers are making use of this cycle and still happily making a living in the midst of a burnt forest.
Moose are by far the most common large ungulate living in this valley bottom zone of the burnt forest. Some biologists think that the long legs of a moose are partly adapted to living in old burns where once the trees fall over and become criss-crossed short legged ungulates can’t get around as easily. Living in tangled old burns where the willow are abundant might be an evolutionary adaptation of moose to avoid predation. Cearcutting this forest will expose moose to wide open habitat where they have little defense against predators like wolves. Nature knows how to “manage” moose. But do we listen?
What appears to be just a dry spot under this log is actually a type of mold. It takes a myriad of species in all the kingdoms across all the taxonomic phyla to make a forest. This is biodiversity. Does modern forest management practices promote this kind of biodiversity or degrade it?
The un-burnt cone of lodgepole pine will help with the renewal of the next forest. Lodgepole pine and their cones are designed to survive fire and open by heat. They are a symbol of the adaptation of certain plants to fire in fire-driven ecosystems.
Wild flowers like this shooting star are often considered “fragile” and “delicate” yet it is among the first plants to colonize the newly burnt forest in what some call a harsh and degraded ecosystem.
This rare Sphagnum-Labrador Tea bog in the Rocky Mountains survived this forest fire and it helps to maintain plant diversity in the forest. If the area is clearcut and the bog is exposed to a hot open environment it will dry out and die.
Wild strawberry flourish in the burnt forest. Their fruit will be eaten by birds this summer and this will spread the seeds thus helping this strawberry colonize new areas in the burnt forest.
This hen spruce grouse sits on clutch of eggs hidden under a dead spruce tree in the middle of the burnt forest. It became so obvious to me after seeing her in this environment that the colouration and patterns of her plumage are completely adapted to the exact patterns and colours of the dead spruce tree that has fallen over in the middle of the burnt forest. She is adapted to living and rearing her young in a burnt forest. If this area is clearcut, the wide open area that is devoid of this type of hiding cover will not support her and her effort to perpetuate the grouse population.
The exposed yellow wood of a burnt log where the bark is sloughing off creates an interesting colour contrast in the burnt black forest. The loose bark on burnt trees creates habitat for many small species of wildlife including bats, birds, insects and amphibians. But once the “timber” is salvaged this habitat that was created by the fire will be gone.
Some would look at the red in the soil and say the fire “baked” the soil. But this is the natural colour of the soil. The reddish colour is part of a soil forming process called “podsolization” and in 11,000 years since the glacier laid the raw un-weathered soil material on the land, these few centimeters of reddish soil is all that nature has managed to weather into soil that plants can get nutrients from. The whitish-green-grey soil is the raw un-weathered glacial material that plants cannot yet extract nutrients from. This is why soil fungi are so important to forest productivity and the survival of future trees. Large logs that remain in the forest so they can rot into the soil is a key element that soil fungi require for survival in a forest. Timber salvaging removes all the large logs and along with it the habitat that soil fungi need.
More moss and plants blanket soil that was completely exposed by the fire. The sealing off of the exposed soil happens rapidly in just a few months. On top of the moss lays the remnant of a shrub killed by the fire. Research has shown that after salvage logging a burnt forest, shrubs are the plant species that have the hardest time recovering.
After a forest fire comes the forest industry. There is no legal requirement for best available science to be incorporated into the planning of timber extraction from burnt forests in BC. British Columbia has no formal way of measuring or protecting biodiversity in a forest whether it’s burnt or not.
A large burnt “snag” recently felled and left on the ground. This dead standing tree will never be a future wildlife tree for cavity nesting birds.
Soil erosion is rapidly starting where industrial equipment has degraded the soil.
In the foreground, the large indentation in the soil is compaction from the heavy logging equipment that logged this burnt forest. Compacted soil inhibits future plant growth and can accelerate soil erosion.
This area in the recently logged part of a forest fire is much more devoid of new plant life compared to the adjacent burnt forest that is still intact.
The soil after salvage logging is churned up like an agriculture field and is likely going to bake rock hard this summer making the recolonization of this ground by plants slower and more difficult.
Clearcut salvage logging in Southeast BC looks like the surface of the moon. The entire valley from rock line to rock line is clearcut and devoid of all the habitat features nature created in the burnt forest.
The land is cleared of all woody logs and churned up by logging equipment. The forest floor has become homogenized and all the diverse micro sites and hiding cover needed by plants and ground nesting birds like the spruce grouse shown in previous photos are absent.
A consequence of profit driven land management, the used oil from logging equipment is illegally dumped on the ground because it was easier than taking it to a recycling facility. The forest company responsible for this is allowed to market its lumber with the FSC – Sustainable Forest Certification product label.
The burnt forest is “cleaned up”. Every last merchantable-sized tree is taken away and those trees not large enough for timber are gathered up and piled so they can be burnt this fall. The soil is exposed more now to erosion since the woody debris in a burnt forest helps protect the soil. The hill slopes in the background show the scars of where operators of logging equipment chewed their way up the steep slopes to cut burnt timber. These scars will rapidly create soil erosion. This barren wide open clear cut will be too inhospitable for many plants, mosses or fungi to survive this year as ground temperatures will soar this summer in the absence of any type of residual cover. Many wildlife species will no longer be able to use this habitat either. This valley has seen a decrease in the moose population over 50% in the last 12 years and now the ones that are left have a barren landscape to contend with. Sadly, there is little the Natural Resource Compliance Officers can do as all of this is legally authorized under the province’s “Professional Reliance” model in forestry.