Balancing Fire and Site Conversion

It’s been about a month since the most recent field trip to discuss southern pine restoration opportunities in the mountains. One of the points for discussion was balancing the need for fire at a landscape level while protecting the investments made in reforestation efforts. We talked a bit about trying to figure out when sites recently planted with shortleaf could withstand a reintroduction of fire. I don’t know that any of us know that magic year and I’m certain as all things silviculture related are the correct answer will be “that depends.”  We’ll need to consider current stocking, species composition, intensity of fire, fuel loading, and a whole host of elements that make up a desired condition.

Pinaceae Pinus echinata - shortleaf pine: Form, shortleaf will often resprout from its basal crook following a fire.

Well just this past weekend Margit Bucher sent around the published proceedings from the 2013 Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers (http://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/gtr/gtr_srs199/gtr_srs199.pdf ) and on page 42 is a synopsis of David Clabo’s theses on the sprouting capability and growth of one-year-old shortleaf pine seedlings. While this study is not quite comprehensive enough to answer all of our questions, it certain points to seasonality of burning not being a major factor in shortleaf sprouting potential and gives us an idea of the survival or sprouting potential we might expect. I’d love to hear from any of you on how this information might be useful information in our restoration efforts, if anyone is aware of research on a wider age group or of similar work with pitch pine.

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Fire and Invasives: The Paulownia Problem

It is well understood that wildfires can promote invasive species — where wildfires burn with high intensities, fire removes the duff and litter layer, allowing invasive species that thrive on bare soil to germinate. One of the biggest invasive culprits in this area is Paulownia tomentosa (princess tree). One Paulownia tree is capable of producing twenty million seeds per year, which are easily carried by wind and water. Once the seeds establish in bare soil, the seedlings can grow to a height of 10-ft in a single season.

With the Table Rock Wildfire that burned in the Linville Gorge last fall, monitoring and treating invasive species (including Paulownia) was identified as the top priority in the Forest Service’s response post-fire. As part of the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) for the Table Rock Fire resource values impacted by the fire were identified, and emergency funds were requested to treat invasive plant species. BAER is an emergency risk management tool that allows the Forest Service to respond to post-wildfire conditions that would destabilize or degrade the burned lands. Using BAER authority, the Forest Services and its partners have been monitoring Paulownia, treating infestations outside the wilderness boundary, and hand-pulling along trails within the wilderness.

Paulownia seedlings carpet the forest in areas where the Table Rock fire burned with high intensity near Chimney Gap

Paulownia seedlings carpet the forest in areas where the Table Rock fire burned with high intensity near Chimney Gap (photo by Kayah Gaydish)

Starting in August, our partners tasked with monitoring and treating Paulownia noted that there was an explosion of seedlings both inside and outside the wilderness boundary. Ben Prater and Kayah Gaydish of WildSouth, who have been leading the treatment efforts in partnership with the Forest Service, invited me out last week to see this firsthand (and put me to work to help treat the seedlings). I was amazed by the sheer number of seedlings coming up — in areas the forest is carpeted with young Paulownia. In inspecting the infestation, we could see that Paulownia occurs in large numbers only where the fire burned with high intensities. The Forest Service has mapped these areas, and luckily they only cover 8-acres (about 1/2 of a percent of the total fire area). In these areas, total canopy loss and the removal of all duff and litter provides the perfect environment for Paulownia — and thus these areas are the priority areas for treatment.

Ben Prater, Director of Conservation at Wild South, treats Paulownia seedlings with herbicide outside the wilderness near Chimney Gap

Ben Prater, Director of Conservation at Wild South, treats Paulownia seedlings with herbicide outside the wilderness near Chimney Gap

While there are some areas that burned with high-intensity outside the wilderness, much of this area lies within the wilderness boundary. Although we can treat those Paulownia seedlings that are outside the wilderness with herbicide, there is no authority to use herbicide within the wilderness. In fact, there is not even authority to hand-pull Paulownia. Without any methods to remove Paulownia from the wilderness, this invasive species would threaten native plant communities and degrade wilderness character.

In response to the infestation, the Forest Service is pursuing additional funding through BAER and authority to hand-pull Paulownia within the wilderness boundary through an Minimum Requirements Decision Guide (MRDG) and use of a Categorical Exclusion under NEPA. The MRDG, which was signed today, is a tool to assist wilderness managers in making appropriate decisions in wilderness. National Forest staff are currently gathering information to prepare a Categorical Exclusion to consider a timely and effective route to control the spread of the infestation. Once the Categorical Exclusion is signed, we will be organizing a broad-scale volunteer effort to get those Paulownia seedlings out before the leaves fall off and the sprouts become hard to identify.

So, as partners I ask you to stay tuned, because we could use all the help we can get in this time-sensitive effort! This will be a great opportunity to work together to help save the Linville Gorge, which holds a special place in all our hearts, from this aggressive invasive species.

Support the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act

The Nature Conservancy Government Relations Director for North Carolina, Will Morgan, recently wrote letter to the editor of the Asheville Citizen Times and three Former Chiefs of the US Forest Service (USFS) did the same for the Los Angeles Times.

The Reason: This year, the USFS expects to spend about 50% of its $5 billion budget fighting wildfire compared to 13% it spent back in 1991. Nearly every year, funding is taken from many important programs like habitat improvement for endangered species, removal of non-native invasive species, enhancing water quality and improving stream habitat, and recreation access improvement in order to fund wildfire suppression.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act is legislation designed to change the way the USFS and Department of the Interior (DOI) fund the response to wildfire. Representatives Simpson (R-ID) and Schrader (D-OR) introduced legislation on February 6, 2014, which is supported by conservation, timber, tribal, recreation, sportsmen, ranching and employer groups.  This bill would ensure funding for both wildfire first responders and land managers that manage public forests and streams. Similar to the FEMA funding for hurricanes and tornadoes, it would establish emergency funding for fire response and ultimately reduce the borrowing from other US Forest Service and DOI programs.  As it stands, USFS and DOI are the only agencies required to pay for natural disaster response out of their annual discretionary budgets. Since 2000 these agencies have run out of money to fight emergency fires 8 times. In the last two years more than $1 billion was “borrowed” from Forest Service programs to cover fire suppression shortfalls.

Within the conservation and land management field, there’s certainly no shortage of folks that support this legislation. We see first hand the degradation of natural resource programs as there is no money to support them. However, I’m not sure that will be enough to get Congress to move on this bill.

Contact your representative and tell them to support the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.

Happy New (Fiscal) Year!

Welcome to Fiscal Year 2015! To commemorate the changing of the fiscal year, I wanted to briefly highlight the Grandfather Restoration Project work we have planned for this new year.

Watershed:

  • Simpsons Creek Project Implementation – Bank stabilization, riparian restoration
  • Armstrong Watershed – Riparian restoration, begin timber sale prep work
  • Bouldering Non-system Roads and Trails – Place boulders to stop use of non-system roads and trails that are causing sedimentation of waterways

Vegetation:

  • Rose’s Creek Timber Sale – Finish remaining harvest units, site-prep burn, planting of Shortleaf Pines

Invasive Species:

  • Wilson Creek Knotweed Treatments – Continue treatment of Japanese Knotweed
  • Catawba River Floodplain – Expand treatment of invasive species within the floodplain forest
  • Big Chestnut Mountain Paulownia Removal – Treat Paulownia (Princess Tree) along roads
  • Hemlock Wooly Adelgid Treatments – Continue treatments of Eastern Hemlock, expand treatments of Carolina Hemlock

Fire:

  • Prescribed Fire Implementation – 6,000+ acres of prescribed fire (weather depending), start burning units under the Grandfather Restoration Burns project
  • Fire Effects Monitoring – Expand monitoring efforts, collaborate with university partners to facilitate analysis of data

Habitat:

  • Little Lost Cove Orchard Restoration – Mowing and prescribed fire to restore a CCC-era apple orchard for wildlife value

Trails:

  • China Creek Trail Improvements – Relocation of trail to reduce sedimentation into China Creek and improve recreation value