The Sierra Forest Voice
Vol. 11, No. 3, September 17, 2018
On August 4, the Inyo National Forest released a draft record of decision to adopt a new forest plan. Covering about 2 million acres, the new forest plan sets the vision and strategic direction for recreation, forest management, conservation, grazing, and many other land management activities for the coming 15-20 years. The development of the revised forest plan was guided by the planning rule adopted by the Forest Service in 2012. The Inyo National Forest is the second national forest in the Nation to propose a final plan to be developed under this rule.
Since 2012, we have been working with coalition members to provide feedback and recommendations to the Forest Service about the revision of the Inyo forest plan. For us and others who have been engaged in the planning effort, we now have an opportunity to review the revised forest plan and offer our final comments. These comments, in the form of an administrative objection, are our last opportunity to seek changes to the final forest plan. We are working with coalition partners to review all aspects of the revised plan and develop items for the objection we plan to file by October 3, 2018.
The revised plan has some good elements that we support, including:
- The recommendation of about 37,000 acres as wilderness. These are important additions to existing three existing wilderness areas.
- Identification of 241.2 miles of streams as eligible for designation as Wild and Scenic Rivers. Eligible streams are to be managed by the agency to protect their free-flowing character, outstandingly remarkable values, and classification (wild, scenic, or recreational), allowing Congress to decide in the future whether to add specific rivers and streams to the system.
- Fire management zones and fire management strategy across the forest that emphasizes restoring fire as an important disturbance process and promotes using prescribed or managed fire to protect people and provide for ecological benefits in all zones, when safe for people and the landscape.
We are very concerned about several aspects of the revised plan and will raise these (and others not listed here) in our objection:
- Critical Aquatic Refuges that were designated in the current forest plan to protect federally listed species have been abandoned in the revised forest plan. There are no measures that provide the same level of protection in the revised forest plan.
- Grazing and other disturbances would now be allowed to impact meadows, fens, and special aquatic features that are functioning at-risk. This means that activities like grazing would be allowed in these highly important and sensitive habitats when they are in a poor condition. The current forest plan does not allow this.
- Conservation measures for the imperiled sage grouse are less than those adopted recently for the neighboring Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest. Without improvement to these measures, the health and persistence of sage grouse continues to be threatened.
- Despite many thousands of acres of wilderness quality lands being identified in the wilderness evaluation, only 37,000 acres were recommended as wilderness. Among the areas overlooked for recommendation were several additions in Mono County that were recommended for inclusion by the Board of Supervisors.
- Conservation measures do not adequately protect complex early seral forests. Instead, the revised plan promotes salvage logging in areas affected by natural disturbance processes like fire and beetle activity and does little to protect these highly diverse and rich habitats.
Our objection will include recommendations on how the Forest Service could resolve our concerns. The Forest Service will hold an objection meeting sometime toward the end of the year. This will be an opportunity for us and others to talk to the Forest Service’s reviewing officer about our concerns.
In recent years the Rough Fire, 151,623 acres (2015) and the Railroad Fire, 12,407 acres (2017) both burning in the Southern Sierra Nevada, encountered giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) groves in the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. The effects from these fires were mixed: both characteristic (within the range of natural variation) and uncharacteristic, suggesting the impacts of long term fire suppression coupled with drought and climate change effects.
Based upon recent discussions with researchers, presentations by ecologists from the Sierra National Forest and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, and site visits over a three-day period, the larger question is: Will these stunning forest monarchs survive the ecological mistakes made by human beings?
This article begins to tackle some key questions regarding managing Giant Sequoia groves:
1. Do groves treated with prescribed fire respond favorably when uncharacteristic fire enters these landscapes?
2. Is current management of giant sequoia groves, including the removal of uncharacteristic ladder fuels (with fire or chainsaws), doing enough to limit uncharacteristic fuel loading and fire effects?
3. Is climate change creating or exacerbating conditions such as drought (water stress) and beetle outbreaks, leading to uncommon giant sequoia mortality in some areas of the southern Sierra Nevada?
4. Are public attitudes towards fire (visible fire effects) influencing management actions in some state park areas with giant sequoia groves?
Built to last...maybe?
Image left: Giant sequoia trees have survived all manner of human actions in the past such as this deplorable bark-skinning and “re-assembly” of the 31-foot diameter Mother of the Forest in Calaveras Grove, which was then shipped to the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, England in the 1850’s to prove its size to skeptical Europeans. .
Image below: Sequoia logging in the 1880's
Today the threats are no less real and may be much harder to control or mitigate. Here we highlight information and slides from two recent sequoia discussions. The first looks at restoration treatment effectiveness in giant sequoia groves in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park during the Rough Fire (2015), presented by Anthony C. Caprio, Fire Ecologist-Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. The second is a presentation by Amarina Wuenschel, Ecologist on the Sierra National Forest, that examines fire effects in the Shadow of the Giants-Sequoia Grove one year after the Railroad Fire (2017).
The Rough Fire
A nearly thousand-year frequent fire record was disrupted by the removal of Native American inhabitants along with their culture of fire use, and the beginning of extensive fire suppression in the mid-1850s by the Euro-American migration into California. These changes, along with logging practices that focused on removal of the largest trees on private lands as well as national forest lands, created dramatic vegetation shifts (infilling of uncharacteristic densities of smaller trees; changes in species composition) over the past 150 years. The managers at Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park recognized that lack of fire had seriously altered the ecosystem and was negatively impacting the groves. Prescribed burning began in Kings Canyon National Park in 1968, and Grant Grove was first burned by the park in 1979.
The year of the Rough Fire (2015) was topped off with a climate change-driven extreme dry period which had a negative impact on fuel conditions driving high levels of fire severity.
But how did the Rough Fire impact Grant Grove with its extensive prescribed burn treatments? Caprio examined this immediately following the fire and two years later to assess any delayed impacts that may have occurred. He found there was less overall tree mortality in stands that had been treated with prescribed fire compared to untreated stands. For both treated and untreated stands, there was a beneficial reduction in the small diameter trees that create a ladder between the ground and upper limbs of adjacent trees. Most concerning was that the higher proportion of large trees that died directly from the fire or within 2 years for the untreated stands.
The take home messages from this study are:
- Direct fire caused mortality was seen throughout the Rough Fire.
- No direct fire caused mortality was observed in medium or large trees in the area treated with prescribed fire, where fuel loads and tree density had been reduced, even though the fire occurred during an extreme drought.
- There are recent observations (fall 2017) of delayed mortality of monarchs (drought stress, fire bark beetles), primarily in the untreated area. This mortality is in areas not severely burned by the Rough Fire. This was not expected and is being investigated further by USGS and NPS staff.
View the full 69-slide presentation here. Thanks to ecologist Tony Caprio for sharing this great presentation of Giant Sequoia resilience and the benefits of prescribed fire.
Nelder Grove—Sierra National Forest
Amarina Wuenschel, Ecologist on the Sierra National Forest, looked at fire effects one year after the Railroad Fire (2017) in the Shadow of the Giants-Sequoia Grove. Fire weather and forest stand conditions left only 2 out of 15 sequoia monarchs with a green canopy postfire.
Railroad Fire behavior in the Nelder Grove:
Started burning in there in early September 2017
- Burned at low to moderate intensities from the west to east until the weather pattern changed
- A thunderstorm developed creating spotting and outflow causing a fire column to grow and then collasped
- This pushed the fire down a south-facing slope, in the heat of the middle of the day, in an area of high tree mortality where the fire crowned (see results in the photos below):
- Natural regeneration of giant sequoia trees post-fire
- Portions of the grove with more white fir had more damaging fire effects
- Fire dropped to the ground when it encountered a heavily treated portion of the grove
- Prior to the weather event, the fire was moving through the grove just burning the understory also;
- There were thousands of giant sequoia (and other conifer) seedlings per acre throughout the area in November (2017) – Bass Lake District Forester Mike Nolen.
- Reauthorizes and funds the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP)
- Creates a Water Source Protection Program to encourage partnerships between the Forest Service and downstream water users like utilities
- Implements a science-based process called Watershed Condition Framework that requires the Forest Service to create action plans to strategically restore degraded watersheds
- Promotes cross boundary wildfire mitigation to reduce hazardous fuels across federal and non-federal lands
- Protect, in perpetuity, 58.5 million acres of roadless national forest in 39 states by codifying the 2001 Roadless Rule.
- Ensure that the more than 240 million people living within 100 miles of a national forest or national grassland retain access to abundant opportunities for spectacular outdoor recreation, including hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, mountain biking, and backcountry skiing.
- Safeguard watersheds in national forests, and roadless areas that provide clean drinking water for over 60 million Americans.
- Save taxpayers millions of dollars by limiting costly new road building, allow the Forest Service to focus on maintaining its existing 371,581-mile network of national forest system roads, and reduce its $3-billion backlog of deferred maintenance on its existing road system.
- Maintain exemptions for hydropower development, public safety, and firefighting needs.
- Uphold the 9th and 10th circuit Courts of Appeals decisions and a decision by a district court in the District of Columbia, in support of the Roadless Rule.
- Allow economic impact to be a driving factor in decisions about protecting species. The ESA calls for listing decisions to be based solely on science. This departure from that requirement could doom species to extinction if they are seen to impose potential economic impacts on connected species interests such as extractive industries like oil and gas drilling or mining.
- Limit the ability of scientists and biologists to consider the threat of climate change on species threatened with extinction. By imposing an artificial timeline on these scientists' ability to analyze future impact, species suffering due to climate change could be deprived of needed safeguards.
- Slash protections for species classified as "Threatened" under the ESA. As currently proposed, the revisions could allow states to enact hunting and trapping seasons for threatened species.
Amarina offered several anecdotal observations from her time spent assessing fire effects one year post-fire in Nelder Grove including:
Thanks to Amarina for sharing this presentation.
To continue this exploration of giant sequoia fire ecology, we walked into the Chimney Tree Trail—Nelder Grove at the eastern edge of the Railroad Fire in mid-August 2018.
The photos above were taken from the fire line, which utilized the trail leading to the Chimney Tree, where the fire was allowed to back to this eastern perimeter. The concerns we have from these observations is that there are excessive ladder fuels in much (though not all) of the Nelder Grove landscape. What we think was a backing fire in this area didn’t consume much of the surface fuels nor the taller, small diameter ladder fuels that can foster fire reaching the lower crowns of the younger and monarch giant sequoia trees in the grove.
Based on the monitoring completed by Caprio and Wuenschel combined with our own observations, we believe that there needs to be more intensive application of prescribed fire and expanded removal of uncharacteristic ladder fuels in giant sequoia groves to limit the fire and drought-related mortality we are currently witnessing.
The Sierra Forest Legacy journey (on-the-ground and virtual) through higher intensity fire areas in the southern Sierra Nevada giant sequoia groves wrapped up at a Society of American Foresters Giant Sequoia Symposium at Calaveras Big Trees State Park near Arnold. After excellent presentations on giant sequoia genetics and fire/drought effects from recent fires, we visited two areas via walking trails adjacent to the meeting hall. It was clear from the discussions with State Park officials that they struggle with integrating active frequent fire into such publicly visable, photogenic landscapes. There is definitely more work to do surrounding changing public attitudes of fire’s ecological role in fostering forest resilience and climate change mitigation, in these precious areas. We plan to work with our Fire MOU Partners to foster expanded pre-fire prep work and expanded prescribed fire in giant sequoia groves and include a strong public outreach effort based on fire reintroduction in popular areas.
Based on past experience such as clear-cutting in giant sequoia stands in the 1980’s there is reason for public skepticism regarding mechanical treatments in groves. But recent work by the National Park Service and Forest Service (including the 3,000 acre Big Stump and Redwood Groves prescribed burn planned on the Sequoia National Forest) and the fact that many groves are heavily fuel loaded with small diameter trees (seen in the photos above), it is past time to engage the three management agencies (State Parks, NPS and Forest Service) in active, science-based fire restoration of these treasured landscapes. The 3,000-year plus life span of these stunning trees demands both a science-based and moral obligation to work with these landscapes, the public and air and land managers to get this right.
Farm Bill Update
This summer, the U.S. House and Senate passed Farm Bills that present wildly different visions for the future of America’s forests. On one end of the spectrum, the House Farm Bill is replete with anti-environmental riders that prioritize logging over all other uses of public land. On the other end, the Senate Farm Bill takes proactive steps towards restoring our forests without weakening bedrock environmental laws. At the time of this writing, lawmakers are working to reconcile differences between the two bills in a conference committee before the current Farm Bill expires on October 1.
The negative provisions in the final House Bill are nearly identical to those that we described in the June issue of The Sierra Voice. As a refresher though, the House Bill includes numerous categorical exclusions (CEs) that would allow logging projects up to 6,000 acres to escape environmental review and public comment under the National Environmental Policy Act. The bill would also exempt the Forest Service from considering the cumulative impacts of multiple CEs in the same area, and also weakens the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Roadless Areas Conservation Rule, and other important federal conservation programs.
By contrast, the truly bi-partisan Senate Farm Bill avoids weakening environmental protections entirely and includes a number of positive provisions that would improve public land management. For example, the Senate Bill:
The conservation community, along with scientists and decision makers, mobilized throughout the summer to oppose the controversial forestry provisions in the House Bill. Recently, a group of 38 senators sent a letter to the conference committee opposing any final bill that weakens NEPA and other basic environmental laws. A similar letter drew 107 signatures in the U.S. House. In addition, scientists sent this letter, and 217 scientists sent another letter, also in opposition to the bills. Sierra Forest Legacy will continue to track the 2018 Farm Bill and will keep our community up-to-date on any actions that we can take to protect Sierra forests.
Legislation Proposed to Provide Permanent Protection for the Nation’s Roadless Areas
There is every indication that the Trump administration will stop at nothing to grant unlimited access to our precious national heritage lands for industrial exploitation. Currently, the administration is planning to undo the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in the Tongass and Chugach National Forests in Alaska, and has already approved 34 mining projects, 10 hydropower or utility connection projects, roads, and a geothermal lease in existing pristine roadless lands there.
Fearing that the rest of our national forests are going to be next, on August 1, 2018, Senator Maria Cantwell from Washington State introduced legislation to permanently protect the remaining pristine roadless areas of our national forests. These lands have been rigorously inventoried and provide critical habitat for at least 1,600 threatened or endangered species. They also provide habitat for abundant fish and game species and provide clean drinking water supplies for millions of Americans. Since the US Forest Service established the Roadless Rule in 2001, these lands have been protected from logging, mining, drilling and other types of inappropriate development.
The Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2018 will:
Sixteen other Democratic senators joined in co-sponsoring Senator Cantwell’s bill, including Sen. Wyden (D-Ore.), Sen. Merkley (D-Ore.), Sen. Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sen. Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Markey (D-Mass.), Sen. Heinrich (D-N.M.), Sen. Smith (Minn.), Sen. Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sen. Murray (D-Wash.), Sen. Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Sen. Reed (D-R.I.), Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Udall (D-N.M), Sen. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Sen. Menendez (D-N.J.), and Sen. Durbin (D-Ill.).
Victory for California’s Wild Rivers!
Some of California’s most iconic rivers gained a critical new safety net on August 27th with Governor Jerry Brown’s signing of AB 2975. This bill, introduced by Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), provides backup state protection for federally-protected wild & scenic rivers if Congress or the President removes a river from the federal system or otherwise weakens a river’s protected status. This affects seven hundred and fifty miles of free-flowing rivers in California, including sections of the Feather, American, Tuolumne, Merced, Kings, Owens and Kern Rivers in the Sierra Nevada.
AB 2975 proves once again that California’s state government is willing to take bold steps to defend our public lands from threats from Congress and the Trump Administration. The bill targets federal efforts such as those of House Republicans, who have now voted three times to eliminate a section of the Merced Wild River in order to allow space to expand Lake McClure. AB 2975 works by requiring California’s Natural Resources Secretary to hold a public meeting in the event that Congress or the President weakens any protection for the 750 miles of federal wild & scenic rivers that existed in California on January 1, 2018. After receiving public input, the Secretary can then choose whether or not to add the affected river to the state wild & scenic system.
Sierra Forest Legacy congratulates Friends of the River and our other coalition partners who helped make AB 2975 a reality. It’s important to celebrate successes when they happen and we are happy to see some positive news for California’s aquatic ecosystems.
Trump Administration Attack on the Endangered Species Act -- Comments due September 24, 2018
The Secretaries of Interior and Commerce in the Trump administration have proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that will gravely threaten the country's ability to protect plants, fish, and wildlife from extinction. The changes would have far-reaching impacts on species already listed and those awaiting protections. Among the proposed regulatory changes are measures that would:
Implemented together, these weakened protections could allow wolverines, Florida panthers, polar bears, and many other species to be harmed or killed. The Endangered Species Act is one of the world's most successful tools at preventing extinction. It has an overwhelming 99 percent success record and has proven itself over decades of use.
The Endangered Species Coalition has prepared a number of tools to help citizens to navigate the commenting process that is set up to accept public input. The agencies are required by law to accept public comment and to use these comments to inform their decision making.
Download Proposed Changes to ESA Fact Sheet
Download Sample Comment Letter--Please use this to guide your comment letter, but if you create your own letter it will have more impact. The agency has made it clear that they do not count letters if they are duplicates.
Update on Bi-State Sage Grouse
As reported in the last issue of The Sierra Voice, a federal judge ruled in May that the Fish and Wildlife Service acted illegally when it arbitrarily decided to not list the Bi-state sage grouse as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act. On August 27 the remedy was published, ordering the Service to reinstate the 2013 determination that listing the bi-state sage grouse is warranted. The Service has until October 2019 to prepare “a new and final listing determination.” Further, the judge ordered reinstatement of the 2,800 square miles of critical habitat identified as necessary for the birds’ survival. Read more here.
Prescribed Fire Workshops for Private Landowners in October
UC Cooperative Extension has scheduled two Rx workshops for private landowners in October 2018. They will be held:
• October 2nd, Colfax Veterans Memorial Hall, 22 Sunset Circle, Colfax, CA OR
• October 4th, Ebbett’s Pass Fire District, 1037 Blagen Rd, Arnold, CA
The one-day workshops are designed for landowners and managers looking to gain skills in prescribed fire planning and implementation. Learn more, and find registration information at this link.
Cultural Burning in California
Watch this video from UC Davis featuring Ron Goode, tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono, as he leads a cultural burn with UC Davis students in February, 2018. Cultural burning in California to provide quality basketweaving materials and for multiple other cultural purposes has been practiced by California Native tribes for thousands of years, and much can be learned from the traditional ecological knowledge still held by Tribal people.
While we mourn the loss of life and property from the unprecedented spate of fires currently burning in California today, we can also reflect on the fact that new life will emerge from the ashes once again across our state’s wooded landscapes. Fire is the dominant disturbance factor triggering the reset button in all of California’s vegetation communities, and for those interested in following the natural succession of species, we can be reasonably certain to see and learn something new when winter turns to spring in 2019.
Image right: Lilium washingtonianum (Washington lily), one of the first flowers to be seen blooming a year after the King Fire, Eldorado National Forest
The evolution of fire adaptations may seem simple—perhaps deceptively so. In habitats that see regular recurring fire, plants that have some advantageous variation that allows them to survive fire will be more likely to successfully reproduce and pass on that same trait to future generations. Over time, those that had no such survival traits were likely to disappear. Variations may be exhibited in the seed, the roots, the crown, or the bark; they could be relative to location, or timing of fires, and response to smoke or chemicals in the ash; or they may result from a combination of factors, some of which may involve associated species. Plant adaptations to additional factors—both biotic and abiotic—are complex and may involve feedbacks and multiple evolutionary pathways. Evolution is an ongoing work in progress, its forces acting upon the survival of species around the clock; and what may work to benefit an individual today may not benefit the same species tomorrow. One thing is certain: fire has and will continue to be the major disturbance factor sculpting California landscapes and its biological diversity, which ranks highest among the states. Virtually all the plants growing in the forests of the Sierra Nevada have some type of adaptation that is associated with fire.
To understand California’s plant diversity and its relationship to fire it is essential to understand that plants exist in two distinct life forms: the adult and the seed. Seeds are living plants, but since they are not readily visible once they fall to the ground, we may not give much thought to them. However, their existence is crucial to the regeneration of the forest after wildfire. The seeds that lie within the soil beneath the trees and shrubs in the forest are collectively called the seed bank, and natural regeneration of the forest largely depends upon them, particularly when fires burn very hot and consume everything. But given enough heat, even seed banks can be destroyed, an event that is much less common than is sometimes asserted by forest managers eager to replant burned sites. Plant seeds also have a variety of dispersal mechanisms for their seeds, enabling them to repopulate burned sites from outside.
In terms of management of natural areas, it is prudent to stay out of the way of evolutionary processes as much as possible, and to mimic these processes when undertaking management activities. These actions should always aim to facilitate the resilience to disturbance that the forests have naturally evolved over millions of years. In just one day, a bulldozer can bury seeds that have built up in the seed bank for hundreds of years, thereby wiping out the ability of those seeds to carry their evolutionary code forward into the future. Forest land managers have a responsibility to understand fire ecology, such that the intelligent tinkering referenced by Aldo Leopold does not result in losing the keys to the kingdom.
The strategies or adaptations for which species survive fire to reproduce and repopulate a burned site can be categorized based on whether the plant is able to reproduce via stump sprouting, after the top is killed by fire; or only via seeding, whereby the seeds in or on the soil sprout in response to a variety of fire-related cues (postfire obligate seeders). Species that can reproduce by either method are called postfire facultative seeders.
If fire burns with high enough intensity, killing all the above ground biomass, seeds in the seed bank remain to restore the population. The seed coats of fire adapted species tend to be resistant to germination and may exist dormant in the seed bank for many years. Germination may be triggered from exposure to heat, smoke, or charate—a mix of ash and nutrients mixed with rainwater--or all three. Given the right conditions, such as a hot, stand replacing fire and bare mineral soil, the seeds of these species are adapted to germinate readily in the following winter and spring. In the case of some species, such as those of the shrub snowbrush (Ceanothus velutinus), studies indicate that seeds may remain dormant but viable for hundreds of years (up to 575 years in one study in Oregon). C. velutinous can also sprout from top-killed crowns or stumps, a survival strategy shared by many species in California.
Perennial species, shrubs and trees, require several years of growth from seed to maturity, to produce sufficient seed to begin to replenish the seed bank. Annual species, on the other hand, live only one year, and can flower prolifically to produce enough seed to replenish the seed bank to ensure their future survival. Annual California wildflowers called “fire followers” appear to be universally adapted to take advantage of the increased sunlight, soil disturbance, and release of nutrients in the post-fire forest. Their seeds can remain dormant in the soil for decades, awaiting their time in the sun after fire, although few studies have been undertaken to quantify their longevity in the soil. In some instances after fire, plants that have not been documented at all in specific regions appear. For example, after the 2013 Morgan Fire on Mt. Diablo, a snapdragon never documented that far north was found (Antirrhinum kelloggii). It is possible to estimate the longevity of viable seeds in the soil bank using such information, if previous surveys are on record, or in the case of conifer overstory, tree ring dating is used to estimate time between fires.
Sometimes plants that have long been considered rare species are abundant immediately after fire, in areas where fire has long been suppressed. In recent years in northern California and southern Oregon, Baker’s globe mallow, Iliamna bakeri, a small shrub related to hibiscus, has been found growing in profusion after recent wildfires. As it hadn’t been seen for one hundred years in some locations, we now know that its seeds can remain dormant for at least that long. Such information is largely lacking for most plant species, however. After the 1987 Stanislaus Complex fires (many acres of which were reburned in the 2013 Rim Fire), new populations and expansion of the rare annual Clarkia australis were found to occur in burned areas. The quintessential fire follower, Papaver californicum, or fire poppy, although not rare, bloomed in masses in Napa and Sonoma Counties in the wake of the 2017 Tubbs Fire, delighting residents who had never seen the poppy before.
Fire suppression over the last 100 years has been the norm in the forests of the Sierra Nevada, and as a result, many of the rare plant populations that are dependent upon fire for regeneration have been shaded out of existence. In the absence of fire, they become associated with areas with low vegetation cover such as rocky flats and other openings where they hang on. With fires increasing, due to the build-up of fuels and drought, plant enthusiasts should be on the lookout for the rebirth of rare plant populations, particularly annuals such as the many rare Clarkias that are known from just a handful of populations. For example the rare endemic C. lingulata (Merced clarkia) may expand in the wake of the Ferguson fire in the Yosemite region. The central Sierra also is home to the fire-following Mariposa clarkia (Clarkia biloba), Small’s clarkia (C. australis), Sierra clarkia (C. virgata), and beaked clarkia (C. rostrata). Another well-known fire follower are the Mimulus, or monkeyflowers, including the rare Mimulus pulchellus (pansy monkeyflower), and M. filicaulis (slender-stemmed monkeyflower). Rare species lists for map quadrants overlapping fire perimeters can be generated using tools available on the CalFlora website, the CNPS Rare Plant Inventory, and the Cal Fire and USFS incident map websites.
Smoke, not heat, is the most widespread germination trigger for most of these annual fire followers (but not all!)—sometimes called the “ephemeral postfire flora” because they predominate the first year after fire, but rapidly decline in numbers by the second or third year—and for many shrubs as well. Their seeds require chemical signals from smoke (which may be in the aqueous phase) and charred plant matter to break seed dormancy. Some examples of plants that require smoke for germination include Dendromecon rigida (bush poppy), manzanita, species of Dicentra, fire poppy, Mimulus, Gilia, Phacelia, and many others.
Seeds that are stimulated to germinate by the heat from fire have harder seed coats that are water-impermeable. This is widespread in certain plant families including Fabaceae, Cistaceae, Convolvulaceae, and Rhamnaceae (for example, Ceanothus).
Image left: Harlequin lupine (Lupinus stiversii) blooming in profusion the first year after the King Fire, Eldorado National Forest
The geophytes, plants with underground storage roots such as the bulbs of Calochortus (mariposa lily) Dichelostemma, Brodiaea, Allium (onion),and Triteleia, bloom profusely after fire, thus producing large volumes of seed that readily sprout if there is sufficient rain in the fall and winter. Their bulbs are pulled down further and further into the ground with each year of growth, providing protection from excessive heat in the event of an intense fire.
Image above: Geophytes bloomed heavily in the aftermath of the 2013 Rim Fire, Stanislaus National Forest
In the Sierra Nevada, conifers have evolved several adaptations to survive fire. One adaptation is the thick bark on old-growth giant sequoias, whose bark may be as thick as 18 inches, and on ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine, incense cedar and others that insulates the conductive tissue in the trees from destruction during moderate and low intensity fires. These trees also tend to lose their lower branches over time, a process termed “self-pruning,” which helps to reduce the upward spread of fire into the crowns. And although giant sequoias belong to a fire regime that includes frequent return intervals, but low severity, they also have serotinous cones, a trait that is also successful in stand-replacing, high intensity fires.
Serotiny is exhibited in giant sequoias, but also in knobcone pine and both species of cypress that occur in the Sierra Nevada (Cupressus macnabiana and C. nevadensis (=Hesperocyparis nevadensis). In these species, the seeds are sealed inside the cone and are held in the canopy until the heat of fire melts the resin and releases the seeds. As each of these species is associated with a different fire regime, their ecology provides an interesting look at the ways that feedback loops affect fire behavior and fire adaptation in turn. For example, in the case of giant sequoias, stand replacing fires are infrequent, and seedlings don’t have a high probability of making good growth under the shading canopy of the giants. The giant sequoias' thick, fire retardant bark insulates them from the effects of low intensity ground fires, further insuring their longevity. Thus, serotiny helps to protect the seeds of the sequoia until there is enough heat intensity to release them, coupled with canopy openings to support seedling survival. Serotinous cones provide an advantage in the rare event when fire is severe enough to create openings in the forest; they are protected from decay and herbivory until they are released during a fire.
The Sierra’s lodgepole pine, Pinus contorta ssp. murrayana, does not have serotinous or closed cones. It is a high elevation conifer growing where fire is infrequent, but burns at high intensities that may result in stand replacing events. When lodgepole pines shed their cones they leave a carpet of fuel beneath them that facilitates greater fire intensity. In contrast, the Rocky Mountain subspecies of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta ssp. latifolia) is sometimes serotinous, with both types of cones occurring within the same stands. Trees with the serotiny genotype produce open cones for up to 60 years, after which they grandually start producing only serotinous cones. The degree of serotiny greatly affects the age distribution in these stands, since reproduction is ongoing from open cones. Lodgepole pine is a great example of a species that is hedging its bets in an evolutionary sense, having evolved strategies that include both fire avoidance/survival traits and fire embracing traits that facilitate stand replacing fires.
Image above: Black oak (Quercus kelloggii) stump sprouting after 2014 King fire, Eldorado National Forest
Sprouting from the root crown after the top is killed is a strategy found in many species, including some Ceanothus and manzanita, chamise, toyon, quaking aspen, many oaks, poison oak, coffeeberry or cascara, California buckeye, mountain mahogany, Pacific madrone, redbud, willow, Carpenteria (tree-anemone), and California flannel bush, to name a few. Stump sprouting occurs from various special structures, including dormant buds in the bole, or more commonly in the root crown, which may take the form of swollen lignotubers. For example, the beautiful burls at the base of some species of manzanita (e.g., Arctostaphylos patula), are lignotubers that contain additional stored carbohydrates and buds that sprout after fire. Sprouting may occur within weeks postfire. Successful survival of sprouters requires sufficient nutritional reserves in the roots, and enough rainfall in the postfire months to support good growth. A history of drought prior to fire depletes carbohydrate reserves, increases dry fuel, and contributes to higher fire intensity; postfire drought can also inhibit survival of the resprouters. Thus, species that primarily reproduce via seed may be better adapted to fire, and in fact, research suggests that this may be so.
This discussion is but a small sampling of the complex ways that fire has shaped the biological treasure that is California. Fire—when applied skillfully though prescribed burning, or when allowed to proceed from unplanned ignitions with careful management—is the most important tool and in fact the last hope to ensure that ecological and evolutionary processes continue into an uncertain future in the era of climate change, and to maintain the unparalleled biodiversity for which California is famous. Keep your eyes open, as you explore the postfire habitats in your neck of the woods. You never know what new discovery awaits you.
For more information about the ecological benefits of fire, see Ecological Burning in the Sierra Nevada: Actions to Achieve Restoration by Karina Silvas-Bellanca, 2011, and the many publications from Jon Keeley (USGS) and V. Thomas Parker (SFU) on this topic that are fundamental to its understanding.
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