Back in the 1930s and 1940s, professional and expert opinion was firmly against any fire in the forest. The only ones who still burned the woods were Southerners and Native Americans. Both groups were ridiculed for their outdated habits. The authorities mounted an advertising campaign against them. “Scholarly” articles were written attacking Southern bad habits and authorities unleashed PR campaigns against burning. They called burning by Native Americans Paiute forestry. Fortunately, neither group stopped burning and gradually ecologists came to a better understanding of fire in the forest.
The experts were not entirely wrong. If your only goal is to produce as much wood as possible in the short term, you should exclude fire. But trees are more than wood and forests are more than trees. A holistic approach is better.
We cannot always justify this with bottom line thinking, but it fits better into the “triple bottom line,” the sweet spot at the intersection of something being good ecologically, economically and culturally.
This triple bottom line – holistic – thinking was much in evidence when we visited the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation. They want to make their timber lands profitable, but they also have other priorities. I very much agreed with their philosophy. It is like what I want on my own land.
My first picture shows a fire managed ponderosa pine forests. It is open and park-like, since the fire cleans out the brush. Ponderosa pine forests used to burn every 3-15 years. The little fires make the forest healthy and can prevent big fires. Notice how high the branches are. The fire does not get into the crowns of the trees. Next shows the tribal forestry folks explaining their methods. After that is a field of camas. The roots are edible and were a culturally valuable food for the Native people. W/o burning, the camas had just about disappeared. Next two are just some more beautiful pictures.
Tribal foresters explained that fire had been a tool their ancestors used for generations. At the end of the season, they set the woods on fire. The fires burned until put out by the snows. When the people came back next spring, the land was again rich with new growth. This virtuous cycle was stopped when fire was excluded. It is coming back now, but restoration takes time. Fortunately, forestry folks understand the need for patience.
Heading back east. The fire conference in Missoula was fun. I got some new insights and lots of things to think about.
Conditions in Virginia are way different from those in the West. Lots of the things that work in our SE ecosystems would be a bad idea out here and the reverse is also true. You really cannot make a policy that works for the whole country.
Today’s talks were useful for me, since they talked about the SE a little more. I was afraid, however, when the first speaker talked about tree mortality and said that trees that were scorched 90% would probably die. We just did a burn that scorched ten acres of loblolly. I was relieved when the next speaker pointed out that, indeed, in the West this was true, but in the SE scorch does not usually kill pines.
We talked about the different fire regimes. I think I added a little to the discussions talking about how spacing affects the heat plumes. I have seen this from experience. The research did not account for changes in convention related to spacing (a tighter canopy hold the heat) and said she would think about it as a factor in her research going forward. The other comment I made was that I thought that backing fires destroy duff, while head fires often scorch. Some of the research conflated the duff destruction with scorch. The two are often inverse. Backing fires look more benign, but they fry the roots. Anyway, it was fun today. It was good to mix the research with the field observation.
A guy from Georgia gave a talk about growing season burns versus dormant season. His research indicates no difference in hardwood suppression, especially dealing with sweet gum. This goes against some of our traditional wisdom, but it is a good thing, if true. It is safer to burn in winter. I got the guy’s information and will follow this.
My pictures show the usual beer drinking. Since it is my birthday, we went to a place called “Jake’s”. My relatives know, but my friends may not, that was my nickname when I was a kid. The next picture is a gas station in big sky country. Finally is a photo from one of the morning lectures, showing convention and its effects on trees, in theory.
I have studied systems theory and complexity since the 1990s. I did not expect to find those things so prominent in a seminar on wildfire but I should have. Very few things we “manage” are as complex as wildfire. A lot of it depends on weather conditions, which are themselves notoriously difficult to predict in detail. Fuels are unknowable in detail. Behaviors of smoke are known in theory, but not in practice. Layer onto all of this the social dimensions. Complex.
Mark Finney, the day’s keynote speaker, talked about the need for models to simplify reality, but the models do not equal experience. He contended that techniques have run ahead of science. Burn bosses have learned from trial and experience in ways that are not codified.
Fire science divided into two divergent streams. One stream is structural fires. This is a true science in that it takes place in human made structures and there can be standardization. You can do actual experiments that can be replicated concerning materials and conditions. Engineers can build whole structures just to burn them down and then specify what works in building codes. Wildfires do not offer this. Conditions are always dynamic.
This does not mean that we cannot learn from wildfires and develop better strategies. Mr. Finney said that we need to continue to work to improve. We can get better, even if we cannot get perfect.
Got to Missoula for the opening of the Fire Continuum Conference on wildfire. Great so far. Tony Incahola from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes explained how Native Americans successfully used fire as a management tool in the years before settlement. Members of the Salish and Kootenai also performed a welcome ceremony. You can hear it in the video below.
He called wildfire a “wicked problem.” By this, he did not mean evil. A wicked problem is one that defies solution because information about it is incomplete and contradictory. Feedback is difficult to recognize and may not be meaningful and requirements are always changing. He proposed we make it less wicked by making evidence-based decisions, recognize risk and commit to its management. Each fire is unique in some ways,but like others too. Fire managers need to share information and together become a learning organization.
Visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield. The geography has not changed much since we were last here, but the interpretation of history is different. It has come back to balance.
When I first heard about Custer, it was the “They Died with Their Boots On” story. Custer represented the light of civilization versus the darkness. The reaction to this dominated during the 1960s. Custer in this version was a cowardly, foolish clown, who deserved to die at the hands of noble savages. Now we can appreciate heroism and bravery on both sides. After events pass from living memory, they become the common heritage of humanity. I thought of that when I saw the monument to the Sioux dead that sits maybe 100 yards from the place where Custer was killed. It is certainly appropriate. At the exhibit in the visitors’ center said that 42% of Custer’s troopers were foreign born. The Native American Crow and Arikara who rode with Custer were the hereditary enemies of the Sioux. My point is that there was great diversity on both sides and the sides were ephemeral.
All these diverse groups are part of the tapestry of America today. Consider that 40% of Americans today can trace an ancestor to Ellis Island, which opened for immigrants only in 1892 and we can see that it makes no sense to take sides on this historical event, but we can all learn from it and appreciate the participants. The events became our American history and the descendants of those who fought here are Americans, like those of us whose ancestors showed up after the battle.
My first picture is me in front of the memorial to the Sioux and Cheyenne who fought at Little Bighorn. Next is “Last Stand Hill.” They marker in the middle is where Custer fell. Next is a healthy stand of ponderosa pines in the Custer National Forests and last is a Sinclair Station. I like to buy gas there for the very irrational reason that there used to be a Sinclair station near my house in Milwaukee and I like the dinosaur.
Finished up the day in Billings, Montana. Not a big city, but it has a whole district of breweries and distilleries. My pictures are from the Billings Brewery District, except the last one. That one is from a rest stop on I-90. It is kind of clever to provide a fire hydrant for traveling dogs.
Mount Rushmore is iconic and worth seeing and worth going to see if you are nearby.
The ponderosa pine forests near Mount Rushmore were interesting. It looks like the Park Service, or Forest Service or others are doing a good job of thinning and maybe burning. We drove through here in 1997. Back then, the woods were too thick. They were asking for attack by beetles and fire and the request was, unfortunately, granted. Management looks better now.
We also went to Wall Drug. For those unfamiliar, it is a complex of kitsch. You see signs every few miles as you drive up I-90. It is not far from the highway and worth stopping. Last picture shows some silos in Wall, SD. I just thought they looked cool.
Drove across South Dakota facing a bodacious wind strong enough to worsen our gas mileage. Funny thing is that we saw lots of windmills in Iowa and few in South Dakota. Must be differences in laws or subsidies. South Dakota presents a variety of ecosystems. The place along the Missouri River is a lot like the upper Mississippi. You go west into great flat vastness. It has been rainy lately, so it is unusually green – almost Land of Oz green. We took a side-trip through the Badlands. They are interesting to look at and there are lots of roadside notices talking about the unique ecology, but they are really just a lot of erosion, the kind of thing you might find in an abandoned gravel pit or abused farmland. On the plus side, the area has largely left alone because it is not valuable for agriculture and it was hard to travel through. Lots of wildlife still exists here. My first and last pictures show bighorn sheep. Next is me with the Badlands in the background, followed by a closeup of some of the erosion. You can see the wind in the next picture and the green-green grass.
Most of what I know about Lewis & Clark beyond what I learned in HS comes from “Undaunted Courage,” a great book by Stephen Ambrose. It is a book I recommend. But the cover of my book has an error. It shows Lewis & Clark dressed in buckskins. It fit my frontier image garnered from watching Walt Disney’s “Davey Crockett,” hardly a work of strict historical scholarship.
I learned today that Lewis & Clark tended to wear their dressy uniforms. This should really not be much of surprise. Consider how well dressed officers were in civil war armies.
We went to visit the Lewis & Clark museum in Sioux City, Iowa. There is not much there, but it is nicely done and worth the visit if you are passing through.
The Lewis & Clark expedition was instrumental to the expansion of our country. It was an expedition of exploration and science that captured the imaginations of Americans of the time and every generation since, even if most of us do not know the details. My pictures are from the museum and the grounds. They had a robot Thomas Jefferson, not exactly “West World” but lifelike.
We finished up in Sioux Fall, SD after a day of driving across Iowa. It is so different from Virginia. Lots fewer trees and lots more row crops. And the soil is black or brown, not red as in Virginia.
Ash trees are still alive in Sioux Falls. It is nice to see them. I know that it is possible to defend trees against emerald ash borers, but it costs a lot. I am hoping that native birds or bugs learn to relish the EAB and keep their numbers down. It is heartbreaking to contemplate having no more ash.
My first pictures are from Granite City Brewery. It was a very pleasant place. Last picture is the Lego version of Lewis & Clark. Beth Harvey Barch might want to share this will Lee, as I think he likes things like this.
Drove through Ohio, Indiana & Illinois. As we move west, the land becomes a bit dryer and flatter.
The death of the ash trees made me sad. Ohio & Indiana were full of ash trees. The emerald ash borer has killed most of them. There are vast ghost forests along the the highways. Ash trees were wonderful trees. They were fast growers, adaptive to a variety of conditions and resistant to many pests. Until now.
My first picture shows ash trees at a roadside, dead. Next is a living white ash tree in Quincy, Illinois. Magnificent trees. Picture after that is a very large bur oak tree and next are a grove of hickories. Last picture shows some linden trees. They are blooming and I just love the fragrance. Midwest forests with their widely spaced trees, oaks, hickories, are woods of home.
We are spending the night in Quincy, Illinois. Never heard to the place before, but it is a nice old city. It has seen better days, but is still pleasant. I didn’t know that this was a venue for one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
The American Tree Farm System (AFTS) assesses tree farms to make sure members are working to the high standards of sustainable harvests and regenerative forestry. As president of the Virginia Tree Farm Foundation, I got to go along.
We finished our tree farm assessment trip on May 11. I am confident that Virginia passed. We have over 1000 certified tree farms in Virginia and this year Virginia is representing the southern states, so if we pass they pass too. We did a representative sample of twenty-one farms in various size classes in various places around the commonwealth. I drove a total 1,195 miles, lots of it over dusty dirt roads. But it was fun to see so much of Virginia and meet such great people.
All tree farmers harvest timber sustainably and follow the principles of regenerative forestry. We protect the water and soil on our land. Beyond that, there are varieties of goals. All the tree farmers I met wanted to make their land profitable, since otherwise few can afford to hold the land, but none were interested only in profit. Some examples are below.
One of the tree farmers we visited has as his central goal to create habitat for bobwhite quail, and he has succeeded. He burns under the pines, plants the right sorts of warm season grasses and provides cover. He doesn’t hunt the birds himself. He just likes to see and hear them.
For another tree farmer, the primary goal is to restore mature hardwood stands like yellow poplar and oak. He wants to recreate the kind of Virginia environment of centuries ago. Of course, this is not 100% possible. Unfortunately, some important trees such as American chestnuts and now ash trees no longer thrive here. But with care we can produce a good and diverse ecosystem. This will take 80 years or more, so it is a generational activity. I met a guy whose farm had been in his family since the 1640s and another who bought his only a few years ago as a place to retire. We inspected a tree farm of more than 1800 acres, with stands of various ages interspersed with wildlife plots. We also saw one that was only twenty acres. The owner was mostly interested in having a place to sit near a stream. Most conservation will be, must be done on private lands. When private landowners are engaged and informed they form a constituency for conservation. Beyond that, they contribute local knowledge and their own intelligence and imagination to make things better. In a complex adaptive environment – and that is nature – having lots of options and ideas is the best way to go. Tree Farm helps make this happen.
I was grateful for the help of the Department of Forestry. They know the landowners and they know the land. ATFS could not work in Virginia w/o them.
My picture shows the assessor, Jim Rochelle, and me. He is a great guy, trained as a wildlife biologist and experienced in forestry.
Below are some notes from the each day.
DAY 4 – Thursday May 10 We have successfully finished twenty out of the twenty-one tree farm assessments. I am confident that Virginia will not only pass but excel.
It has been great to be part of this assessment. Tree farmers in Virginia are contributing mightily to conservation on private land and I got to see it up close.
My first picture shows loblolly planted in 1987 with their volunteer progeny in front. It is a challenge not to get too many loblollies on a site. We plant the genetically better trees only to get them crowded out. I have a plan for mine, however. We planted loblolly 10×10 in Brodnax and now they are surrounded by volunteers. I figure that the ones we planted will grow faster because they are genetically better, and they have a year head start. If I burn when they are eight-years-old, if it is not too hot, the fire will thin the stand by killing the little ones, which will be mostly the volunteers. Might work.
The next picture shows yellow poplars. Hardwood forests are usually managed with natural regeneration. Yellow poplar seeds spread by the winds and can carry far. They need significant sunlight, so you need to clear some acreage. Selective cutting sounds like a good idea but usually is not good in practice. If you just take out the biggest trees, you are condemning your forest to weakness. The biggest trees are not always the oldest. Dishonest loggers will take out the best, called “high-grading” leaving those that will never get very big. And many desirable species like oak and yellow poplar will not grow in the shade.
Picture #3 is a lady slipper, a type of orchid native to North America. Next are a couple of jackasses. One of our tree farmers has lots of horses and donkeys. ————————————————————-
Wednesday May 9
We spent the third day of tree farm assessments around Thomas Jefferson country. This is one of the prettiest parts of Virginia & Jefferson is one of my favorite America leaders. But Jefferson country makes me think of someone much closer. Mariza graduated from Thomas Jefferson’s university. Driving around here brings thoughts of her. We came up here often to drop her off or pick her up at UVA.
Tree farms have different characteristics in different parts of the state. In Southside the forests are mostly pine. Here in the mountains they are often mixed hardwoods. It also seems that in the mountains tree farms are part of general farms.
Jefferson (& Madison & Monroe) country is a countryside of very neat, often historical farms, now being joined by vineyards, cider makers and specialty beef and pork producers. Roads are flanked by well-maintained fences of wood or bricks. Fences made from big rocks, as you see in my picture below are not common, but I thought it good to take the picture of something so attractive. They are hard to see in the second picture, but if you look closely you see a couple of horses. In the foreground are some very big yellow poplars (tulip trees). Picture #3 shows a public path on private land. Last is a nice morning scene. All the pictures are taken from Virginia certified tree farms. Tree farmers conserve a lot of beauty. ——————————————
Tuesday, May 8, 2018 Virginia accents are diverse and beautiful. They are not generally like the stereotypical southern accents you hear on TV, often done by non-southern actors. Rather, there is a polite, melodious softness.
A great thing about talking to forestry folks is that they often have a species of Virginia accent with a college education, as many has graduated from Virginia Tech or North Carolina State.
I think it a little ironic that when Washington, Jefferson or Madison are depicted on TV or in movies, they usually have a kind of British accent. More likely these Virginians spoke like Virginians.
This is the Day #2 of our Virginia forestry Odyssey. Of tree farmers are acquitting themselves well. They have up-to-date management plans and we find there land ethics etched on the land itself. It is gratifying to me and I am proud of my small role in Virginia tree farming.
We are very lucky to have such great cooperation with Virginia Department of Forestry. Tree Farm could not do its work w/o these friends. We help each other. Certification is important. Tree farmers still do not see the benefits in the form of higher prices for their forest products, but in the longer run certification is part of our broader social license to operate. It is a public affirmation of our commitment to regenerative forestry, making clean water and living soils a forest product.
The Commonwealth has three big eco-regions and lots of smaller ones. The big ones are the flat tidewater, which turns to Piedmont roughly at I-95. Piedmont transitions to mountains more or less along US 29. ——————————-
Monday, May 7, 2018 We started our Virginia Tree Farm Odyssey today. We will be visiting twenty-one certified tree farms in the Commonwealth over the next week as part of an assessment by the national American Tree Farm System. Virginia is representative of the southern states this year.
So far it seem to be okay. The assessor says that he likes what he sees and there have been no significant problems or violations.
I am proud of the work we do in Virginia forestry. Virginia DoF inspects all harvests, but does not lay a heavy hand on landowners. The assessor if from Washington State. We talked a little about the differences between Virginia and the West Coast. Suffice it to say that I am very glad to be in Virginia.
There are lots of ecological differences between our forests and those on the West Coast, but one reason why they have so many more problems with bugs and fires is because it is much harder there to practice good forestry. In Virginia, we can thin and we can burn much easier, because of more reasonable regulations and better local markets for small wood. This means we can anticipate and often avoid insect infestations and we can preemptively burn on our terms and avoid many disastrous forest threatening wildfires. Wildfires and insect infestations are both natural and caused by human action or lack of proper action. Our tree farmers reported manageable problems. We must be grateful that in Virginia we enjoy a relatively benign environment. We have not had a big outbreak of southern pine beetle for sixteen years. Some of this is good luck, but our regular thinning is very helpful. Most of Virginia is low risk for fusiform rust, a fungal disease that harms loblolly, and improved seedlings have almost eradicated it. We have invasives like kudzu, multiflora rose and ailanthus, but these are not overwhelming. We don’t have many poison snakes, maybe a few cottonmouths and timber rattlers, but I have never seen any. Ticks are probably the most annoying menace.
Anyway, we finished up in Brunswick County today and will go up toward Blackstone tomorrow morning.
On our way to Missoula, Montana for a conference on fire science. Missoula is a center for the study of wildfire, so when I saw a conference on the subject in that place, I thought it would be great to go at least once.
A few interesting sites along the way. One is a rest stop in Maryland that you see in the first picture. It has to be one of the best rest stops I have ever seen. Next is a place that claims to have invented the hot dog, at least in its current form. We checked into it. There are other claimants. This place was a little cramped. Worth seeing but not worth going to see. Chrissy had the hot dog. It was like other hot dogs. Later that day we stopped at Jackie O Taproom in Athens, Ohio. It is not named after Jackie Onassis, but they admit that it is a draw. Next two pictures are our usual beer drinking pictures.
Also on the road are pre-Columbian earth mounds in Chillicothe, Ohio. The people who built them disappeared from the archeological record around 1500 years ago. While they are probably related to some contemporary groups, there is no direct line.
By the time Europeans arrived, none of the local tribes were mound builders, so the ancient culture is called “Hopewell” after the guy whose farm they were found.
The Hopewell people did not build cities or villages. Archeologists have never found remains of more than a few huts. They were mostly pre-agricultural. But they did like to build earthen mounds. This was no easy task. They did not have metal tools or pack animals. There is evidence of long-distance trade, including copper from around Lake Superior and shells from Gulf of Mexico. My first two pictures show the mounds. You can see me in the first picture for scale. Last is a groundskeeper doing some work. It occurred to me that this guy with his metal shovel and powered vehicle could move as much dirt as a hundred guys on foot carrying baskets and digging with sticks.