Black Bears and Forest Management on the Grandfather

Despite our unprecedented warm weather this winter, most of Western North Carolina’s black bears are sleeping deep right now, and some females have just recently given birth. Bears are among the most charismatic species in the eastern U.S., and bear ecology is pretty fascinating.  The WNC bear population is super healthy and we are learning much more about their movements, habitat needs, and tolerance for living around people.

I’ve given this presentation several times around WNC now, but I’ve been working to turn it into an article others can access.

bear-in-den

More about bears ecology in western North Carolina and how the Grandfather CFLR project impacts bears.

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Rose’s Mountain Prescribed Burn

This was the first ever burn at the Rose’s Mountain unit, which was the first unit to be burned under the new Grandfather Restoration Burns project. The ecosystem in this unit is highly fire-adapted, and was a top-ranking area to prioritize burns under the project. We had a great burn, blackening 70-80% of the unit, and meeting all objectives. Fire managers were able to keep the flames low in young pine areas to protect their growth. Firefighters also protected the Mountains to Sea trail, which received no damage in the burn. Thanks not only to our firefighters on the ground, but to all the collaborative members who helped guide the Restoration Burns project! We are excited to be able to restore these areas. This unit in particular has Fire Learning Network vegetation monitoring plots that will be monitored under the CFLR agreement with Western Carolina University.

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Date: March 9-10
Size: 3,100 acres
Location: North of Morganton, NC, South of Table Rock
Purpose: Restoration of fire-adapted communities, fuels reduction
Partners: The NC Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina Department of Transportation, and Burke County Emergency Management

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.

Logging Benefits Insect Pollinators? New Research Examines The Relationship of Timber Harvest and Bug Habitat

Insect pollinators are critical for maintaining forest plant diversity.  Close to 70% of our flowering plants are pollinated by insects, including most of our spring wildflowers. However, research suggests significant pollinator decline throughout the U.S., likely due to native habitat destruction and climate change.  Interestingly, Southeastern Naturalist just published a new research paper that found that the logging roads and other openings that remain after a tree harvest in fact benefit insect pollinators.Pages from 2014 (Jackson et al) Logging Legacies Affect Insect Pollinator Communities in Southern Appalachian Forests

Timber Management is a key component of the Grandfather Restoration Project, and selective tree harvest is a valuable management tool used to restore native plant and animal communities. The National Forests of the Southern Appalachians were once a significant source for wood products throughout the nation. Once virgin timber was harvested, many areas were replanted with trees that were the most commercially valuable. Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) was chosen as it is one of the most economically valuable trees due to its myriad of uses, longevity following harvest, rapid growth, and relatively few defects. Many areas of the Grandfather Ranger District are now dominated by densely planted white pine plantations, but the density of such stands prevents sunlight from reaching the forest floor, which inhibits the growth of herbaceous plants and ultimately limits plant and animal diversity.

Over the past 50 years, the priorities of the US Forest Service have shifted. In general, the focus of our National Forest timber management programs are no longer solely for fiber production. As rapid urban development continues throughout the southeastern US, our native plant and animal communities are disappearing and the US Forest Service recognizes this. Fortunately, they also understand that the forests they manage are crucial for the preservation of biodiversity in our country. Although some past harvest practices have, justifiably, made many of us wary due to the environmental damage that can result, research over that past 30 years has demonstrated that well-planned timber management is an effective means of restoring our native plant and animal communities, including insect pollinators:

“Many temperate deciduous forests are recovering from past logging, but the effects of logging legacies and environmental gradients on forest insect pollinators have not been well-studied. In this study, we asked how pollinator abundance and community composition varied with distance from logging roads and elevation in old (logged >90 years ago) and young (logged 20–40 years ago) southern Appalachian forests. In summer, many pollinator groups were more abundant in younger forests and closer to logging roads, likely due in part to more light availability and a greater abundance of floral resources near roads. Total bee abundance was greater near logging roads, but only in younger forests, suggesting that the role of roads in providing nectar and other resources may diminish as forests mature. In spring, many pollinator families were less abundant at mid-distances (2–10 m) from roads compared to road edges (0 m), but abundances were generally the same at 100 m from the road as at road edges. Two important bee families, Apidae and Andrenidae, were strongly associated with high elevations in spring. Our results suggest that logging legacies may provide supplemental resources such as food and nesting sites to insect pollinators during the summer months especially, with the effects of roads often extending at least 100 m into young forests.”

So the next time you find yourself driving, biking, or hiking through the Grandfather Ranger District and come across a timber harvest, realize that although it may look somewhat unappealing in the beginning this work will not only benefit our natural communities over the long-term, but according to this research, it benefits insect pollinators in the short-term.

Access the full article:

Logging Legacies Affect Insect Pollinator Communities in Southern Appalachian Forests
Michelle M. Jackson, Monica G. Turner, and Scott M. Pearson      
Southeastern Naturalist, Volume 13, Issue 2 (2014): 317–336

 

Fuel Treatments and Wildfire Behavior: A Preliminary Report from the Rim Fire

rimfireThe Rim Fire was a wildfire in the central Sierra Nevada region, in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties of California. The fire started on August 17, 2013, during the 2013 California wildfire season. It was the third largest wildfire in California’s history, having burned 257,314 acres, and is the biggest wildfire on record in the Sierra Nevada. A widespread heat wave and drought conditions helped to spread the fire and make it difficult to combat. Also contributing to the fire was a pre-1980s policy of suppressing small natural fires. The lack of those fires created nearly a century’s worth of fuel to burn, resulting in a massive forest fire killing virtually all plant life in its path.

A recently released report from the US Forest Service and the National Park Service provides a preliminary description of how the Rim Fire affected areas differentially depending on the previous extent of land management, or lack thereof. The report looks at the interactions between the fire behavior and a select number of areas where management actions designed to mitigate wildfire and improve natural resource conditions were implemented on the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park.

In general, it was found that where fuels treatments occurred prior to the Rim Fire, the wildfire burned with lower intensities.

“The fuel breaks played a critical role in reducing the intensity of the fire in the Pine Mountain Lake community, their purpose was to reduce fuel loads and the work done the past five to seven years made the difference,” said SWIFT coordinator Allen Johnson.

View the full report here: Rim Fire – Preliminary Fuel Treatment Effectiveness Report

Rockhouse Creek Prescribed Burn: First ever Growing Season Burn for US Forest Service in the NC Mountains

Exciting news from the Grandfather! We found a window of rain-free days and were able to pull off our first growing season burn yesterday at Rockhouse Creek. This is the first time that a landscape-scale growing season burn has been implemented on Pisgah or Nantahala NFs (beyond site prep burning). While the stated goal was fuels reduction, we were also looking to further the ecosystem change at the site from a mostly closed-canopy Oak-Hickory forest with little herbaceous growth, to a more open woodland condition with a diverse understory.

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Stats

Date: July 8th 

Size: 560 acres

Location: Wilson Creek headwaters near Roseboro, NC

Purpose: Fuel Reduction

Partners: NC Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Appalachian RD, Pisgah RD, Tusquitee RD, Cheoah RD, Nantahala RD

Treatment #: 4th (last 3 burns were dormant season, last burn 5 yrs ago)

 

The Rockhouse unit was lit by hand, with lighting crews working along the ridges and holding crews along the roads. While humidity was predicted to drop into the 40s the afternoon of the burn, spot weather indicated humidity in the 60s-70s on the site. A dense layer of Mountain Laurel regrowth on the ridges kept the humidity even higher near the ground. Because of the high humidity, it was difficult to get the site to burn even with receptive fuels.  Generally, following ignition we’d get good initial intensity, but it would weaken pretty quickly.  Intermittent 10mph gusts, cloud breaks, and canopy gaps would help increase intensity and spread, and certainly areas where we would strip farther downslope and get some run upslope helped as well. We were able to blacken an estimated 25% of the burn unit. The burn plan differed from dormant season burns in that care was taken to limit flame lengths to 1-2ft to limit overstory hardwood mortality.  

 

Although only 25% of the unit burned, we count this as a success, both in reducing fuels and allowing fire managers in western NC experience with growing season burns. It also provided a great training opportunity for summer students training in fire from the Tusquitee, Cheoah, Nantahala, and Grandfather RDs to participate in a prescribed burning operation. We will look at conducting another growing season burn next summer, taking into account lessons learned from the Rockhouse site. We will look for burn units with a more open overstory, larger pine component, and a shorter time since the last entry (2-3yrs) to increase the receptiveness of the fuels.

 

6 monitoring plots were installed in the Rockhouse burn unit, and pre-burn monitoring was conducted prior to this entry using the Fire Learning Network protocol. We will conduct immediate post burn monitoring over the next couple weeks, and will look at results again next growing season. I will share that data with the group once we get a good picture of the impacts of the burn.

 

Thought Provoking Article from the New York Times

You won’t hear it on your summer hike above the bird song and the soft applause of aspen leaves, but there’s a heresy echoing through America’s woods and wild places. It’s a debate about how we should think about, and treat, our wilderness in the 21st century, one with real implications for the nearly 110 million acres of wild lands that we’ve set aside across the United States.

Fifty years ago this September, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which created a national system of wilderness areas. Wilderness has been called the “hard green line” for the act’s uncompromising language: Man will leave these places alone. As the law’s drafter and spiritual father, Howard Zahniser, put it, “we should be guardians, not gardeners.”

At 50, however, the Wilderness Act faces a midlife crisis.

We now know that, thanks to climate change, we’ve left no place unmolested and inadvertently put our fingerprints on even the most unpeopled corners of the planet. This reality has pushed respected scientists to advocate what many wilderness partisans past and present would consider……………..

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/06/opinion/sunday/the-wilderness-act-is-facing-a-midlife-crisis.html?_r=1