Christy Sherr: Animals like their forests well done
Forest land managers, pressured by misinformed public representatives such as Doug LaMalfa, R-CA, propose to destroy the rarest and most wildlife-rich habitat in the Sierra Nevada.
Snag forest, or “Complex early seral forest (CESF),” created by high-intensity fire (75 to 100 percent mortality) is the most ecologically diverse and wildlife-rich forest habitat type in the Sierra Nevada.
Over 30 years of comprehensive scientific research overwhelmingly demonstrates the importance of maintaining burned forest, especially intensely burned forest, on the landscape in its entirety.
Indeed, the snag forest habitat areas created by high-intensity fire cannot be termed “deforested” or “destroyed” because this implies that they lack value.
Instead, they are essential aspects of a healthy forest and act as nurseries for most native bird and mammal species, especially bats.
Flowering herbs and shrubs reappear quickly after a fire and attract flying insects. Birds, bats and small mammals flock to the area and feast on the natural buffet. Woodpeckers fly from miles away to eat the fat, nutrient-rich wood-boring beetle grubs and excavate nest cavities in the softer wood.
Secondary cavity nesters like bluebirds, wrens and nuthatches then use these cavities for many years to come. Spotted owls and pacific fishers leave their home ranges to enjoy the abundant prey in the snag forest. Even native fish are more abundant and larger in waterways bordered by snag forests.
Snag forests created by high-intensity fires are even more biologically rich and diverse than our green old-growth forests.
We understand now that our conifer forests rely on fire to maintain ecosystem integrity and wildlife diversity.
Currently, these forests are in an extreme fire deficit of all severities. This fire deficit means that when fires do occur, they are generally restorative events because they return fire and its ecological value to the landscape, providing essential and rare wildlife habitat.
Snag forest is 10 times rarer than green old growth forest, comprising less than 3 percent of land area across the Sierra Nevada. Far more bird species associated with this habitat are declining than birds associated with unburned forest.
No meaningful protections currently exist for these critical forest nurseries.
Salvage logging these rare snag forests under the misleading guise of more quickly returning these areas to “old forest” is not scientifically sound — it does not acknowledge the importance of the snag forests themselves, or that the journey is just as important as the destination in forest succession. Healthy old forests derive critical components like snags, downed wood, shrubs, and natural heterogeneity from complex early seral forest. These components are all but destroyed by salvage logging and subsequent herbicide application. It does not make sense to achieve a healthy forest by destroying complex early seral forest to more quickly achieve old forest — instead, both are damaged ecologically, and we are left with another sterile forest plantation.
Another misleading message supporting hasty use of salvage logging and herbicide application after a forest fire is that these “treatments” will protect us from another fire.
Actually, research shows that post-fire areas that are salvage logged and “treated” burn sooner and at higher intensity than areas left to naturally regenerate.
Taxpayers spend millions annually to support the USFS in logging and spraying chemicals on these biologically rich areas located in remote areas. It makes more sense to leave these natural areas alone, save this money, and use some of it to enhance our forest management efforts closer to where our population centers and homes are located.
Let’s recognize the snag forest for what it is — an ecologically distinct and valuable forest habitat. These ephemeral snag forests must be mapped, monitored, and protected from post-fire logging and herbicide application. In addition, we must expand our use of mixed-intensity managed wild land fire to restore snag forests and wildlife throughout our landscape.
Tell your USFS Supervisor and your representatives today that you demand more efficient use of your money, and that they must base their land management actions upon sound and current science.
Christy Sherr is a retired park ranger who is currently working as a wildlife biologist and outreach coordinator for the John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute. For questions or to obtain copies of relevant scientific research, you may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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