Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Reflections on Magruder Corridor Fire Succession Field Learning Experience Photos and narrative by John Harrington

On Friday, October 3, 2014, students in the Wilderness and Civilization Program had the opportunity to meet with Mick Harrington and David Campbell. Mr. Harrington is an experienced Fire Succession Ecologist and lifelong native of Western Montana. Mr. Campbell is a retired Wilderness Manager, who at age eighteen began working for the Forest Service as part of a fire suppression team. He climbed the ranks of the USFS, working as a Wilderness Ranger for many years.
From left to right: Harrington, Campbell

The chilly morning began with a practical examination of an old-growth Ponderosa Pine forest that has been heavily managed in order to reduce underbrush. Mr. Harrington explained that because the Ponderosa crown is so far from the forest floor, and has fire resistant bark, it has historically been able to resist traditional fire regimes in this area. With fire suppression becoming the modus operandi of the twentieth century, this changed. Douglass fir, typically cleared by fire regimes in this area, has grown in tandem with the Ponderosas, threatening them. When the Douglas Fir grows too near to the crown of a Ponderosa, the later becomes susceptible to what would have otherwise been a benign fire.

Note the Douglas Firs on the right precipitously close to the Ponderosa Pine (left). What would have otherwise been a crown safe from fire is now close to a new fuel source.

The Forest Service has embarked on a project in this area to harvest the growth around these Ponderosas (mainly Dogulas Firs) and sell them for timber. This practice has proved controversial, as many parties have accused the USFS, and Mr. Campbell is particular, for being financially motivated. Mr. Campbell argues that such measures are necessary to undo the damage done by a century of fire suppression. Wilderness enthusiasts and preservationists disagree.
 The Ravens Creek Complex history while 
Wilderness and Civilization students examine
infrared maps overlaid on fire history mapping. 

In areas recently (<10 years) burned,
the heat signature of the fire is much less,

 indicating a less intense fire.

Throughout his career Mr. Campbell has taken a “hands-off” approach to fire management in his district. He argues that fire is a natural and necessary part of ecological succession, and his belief is backed by scientific evidence that Mr. Harrington has helped to gather. Harrington and Campbell are often criticized for their beliefs. One such example would be the wash out that our group viewed while traveling down the corridor. Some within the Forest Service argue that if the fire that crept through this hillside had been suppressed, that financial resources would have been saved from having to clear the road.

Above is an example of primary succession. 
This stand has just experienced disturbance 
and awaits a new cohort establishment.  
An example of secondary succession
After lunch, we continued further West along the corridor to view the ongoing Ravens Creek complex. I was astonished at how little damage this fire had done. Most trees were left unburned, the undergrowth now ash.  Our group was able to watch an old downed log carry the fire to a decaying tree stump, where it will likely smolder for days. Even though this fire was in its end stage, it was a profound learning opportunity to see just how gentle a wilderness fire can be in contrast to harsh alarmist news reports. Watching the fire gently smolder along was actually peaceful, and our group enjoyed its radiating warmth.

This trip provided the group with an excellent field learning experience regarding fire management, succession, and politics.  Riding with Mr. Campbell, a few of us also learned a lot about the bureaucracy inherent within the Forest Service and his personal climb through it. For the sake of objectivity, it would have been interesting to have visited with a community member holding an opposing viewpoint regarding fire management policy and the sale of timber from within a Wilderness Area. 

To learn more visit the Forest Service website below:

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