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The Sierra Forest Voice Newsletter

The Sierra Forest Voice

Web Edition
Vol. 15, No. 2, June 8, 2022

 

Strategic Plan for Expanding the Use of Beneficial Fire

California's Strategic Plan for Expanding the Use of Beneficial FireOn March 30, 2022, California Governor Newsom’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force released the Strategic Plan for Expanding the Use of Beneficial Fire to expand the use of prescribed fire, cultural burning, and fire managed for resource benefit—collectively referred to as beneficial fire--in order to significantly improve the resilience of California’s fire-dependent ecosystems.  The trailblazing new plan provides a roadmap to significantly increase the pace and scale of these forest management activities through 2025.

A year in the making, the Strategic Plan is an unprecedented collaborative effort between the California Natural Resources Agency, the Forest Service, CAL FIRE, the California Air Resources Board,  tribes, and multiple non-governmental organization partners including the members of the Fire MOU Partnership, to deliver a clear pathway forward for expanding beneficial fire in California. Its nine key goals and related actions will re-establish beneficial fire in California--after 120 years of misunderstanding our naturally fire-associated landscapes.

The 54-page plan includes detailed descriptions of the key elements, goals, funding, and related actions currently underway to achieve the strategic plan’s goals. It also contains an extensive bibliography referencing the key scientific underpinnings of the plan, and an appendix of recent and related legislation.  We provide a few of the highlights here. Text in italics is taken directly from the plan.

The seven key elements of the plan include agency commitments to:

1) Launch an online prescribed fire permitting system to streamline the review and approval of prescribed fire projects;
2) Develop a state-financed program to enable tribes and cultural fire practitioners to revitalize cultural burning practices;
3) Establish a Prescribed Fire Training Center to grow, train, and diversify the state’s prescribed fire workforce;
4) Develop the state’s new Prescribed Fire Claims Fund to address liability issues facing private burners;
5) Develop an interagency beneficial fire tracking system;
6) Launch pilot projects to undertake larger landscape-scale burns;
7) Undertake a comprehensive review of the state’s smoke management programs to facilitate prescribed fire while protecting public health. 

The following nine goals provide the structure from which key actions are being developed. In this limited space, we've summarized a few of the many programs, grants, and actions currently underway in support of the Strategy.

1) Develop a Robust Beneficial Fire Workforce: The state and its partners will grow, train, and diversify the beneficial fire workforce, including people trained in burn planning, burn implementation, public communication, air quality modeling and permitting, data analysis and modeling, and operational support.

Progress is well under way for this goal, including the passage of Calif. Senate Bill 1260 (2018), and CAL FIRE’s Office of the State Fire Marshal curriculum for certifying Prescribed Fire Burn Bosses, for the first time in Spring 2021. This is an exciting new direction for the state and for our society at large as we move towards cultural acceptance of burning, while growing the potential to engage more young people in meaningful careers in natural resource management.

2) Empower the Private Sector: The state and its partners will encourage and effectively leverage private landowner interest in prescribed fire as a land management tool.

Work currently being funded and implemented that supports this goal include:  

  • California Climate Investments (CCI) Grant Program
  • Calif. Department of Conservation’s Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program 
  • CAL FIRE’S Vegetation Management Program
  • The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
  • Prescribed Burn Associations
  • SB 332 (Dodd) modifies the liability standard for CAL FIRE’S fire suppression costs to better protect public and cultural fire practitioners from liability in the rare event a fire causes unintended damage or harm. 

3) Expand Cultural Burning and Tribal Engagement: The state and its partners will support the expansion of cultural burning and better integrate California Native American tribes, tribal organizations, and cultural fire practitioners into other forms of beneficial fire across California.

As Margo Robbins, Yurok elder and co-founder and executive director  of the Cultural Fire Management Council, writes in the Strategic Plan (p. 30), “Indigenous people have been burning for thousands of years.  Our ancestors lived in a spiritually balanced relationship with the land and fire was a critical part of maintaining this balance.”

Examples of related actions towards this goal include:

  • SB 170 established a $20 million fund for tribal forest health grants, and a Prescribed Fire Claims Fund to support Native American tribes; AB 642 and SB 332 to encourage and enable cultural burning 
  • A Native Stewardship Corps established in collaboration and with funding from Calif. State Parks, to re-establish burning on the central coast; establishment of the Cultural Fire Management Council by the Yurok people, and establishment of the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, an intertribal support system created by the Yurok, Hoopa, and Karuk tribes  
  • Governor Newsom’s Statement on Native American’s Ancestral Land Policy (2020)

4) Improve Regulatory Efficiency: The state will reduce regulatory barriers for beneficial fire while continuing to ensure public safety, minimize environmental impacts, and protect public health and property.

Some regulations and policies, including CARB’s smoke management guidelines, are outdated and do not match current practice. The state is committed to streamline the permit and regulatory process to facilitate the increased use of beneficial fire while continuing to protect public health and safety.

5) Protect Public Health: The state will monitor, assess, and mitigate the potential adverse public health impacts associated with beneficial fire smoke.

Increased support for research and data collection, and new smoke monitoring equipment are improving the mechanisms to avoid incidental smoke exposure to help sensitive populations. Research is underway to study the impacts of smoke on frontline workers as well. Improved communication and outreach such as CARB’s Smoke Spotter mobile app will help people prepare for smoke events related to prescribed fire.

6) Build Public Support: The state and its partners will effectively educate the public on the benefits of and scientific support for the use of beneficial fire. Recent studies indicate strong support for beneficial fire programs where the public is aware of their benefits and familiar with land managers and fire practitioners.

The Fire MOU Partnership Outreach and Communications Working Group has developed a comprehensive fire communication plan for use by Fire MOU members. Land and air managers including CALFIRE and the USFS are developing public education strategies to promote a unified message around the beneficial use of fire. The University of California’s Cooperative Extension is providing a broad array of communications tools and other resources available on the California Prescribed Burn Association website (calpba.org).  

7) Facilitate Larger and Strategically Located Burns: A greater percentage of beneficial fire projects in California will be conducted over larger landscapes. The ambitious acreage targets in the Strategic Plan cannot be met without increasing the size of beneficial fire projects. Projects that are currently tens or hundreds of acres must expand to encompass thousands of acres, when conditions are favorable.  Larger and longer burn projects are likely to require significant advanced planning and preparation across jurisdictions and agencies.

This goal will be met through establishment of two to three landscape-scale fire projects (to be identified by the Fire MOU Partnership), investment in state-of-the-art weather and smoke prediction tools, and significant advanced planning and preparation across jurisdictions and agencies.

8) Use Fire Managed for Resource Benefit Where and When Appropriate: Where feasible, appropriate, and planned, fire management agencies will work with fire managers and owners to manage unintentional ignitions for community protection, biodiversity, forest resilience, and other benefits.

While many unintentional ignitions require full fire suppression efforts (including ignitions located in proximity to communities and other assets or under adverse weather conditions), some ignitions can be managed in a way to achieve ecosystem and other resource benefits without undue risk to public safety or significant impacts to public health or the environment. This practice, referred to as “fire managed for resource benefit” or “managed fire” is already in use by the USFS and other public land managers where land management plans allow, such as in Wilderness Areas on the Inyo, Sequoia, Sierra, and Klamath National Forests. Under appropriate weather and safety conditions, where infrastructure, private property, and public safety are not at immediate risk, where adequate resources are available, and in agreement with landowner objectives, fire managed for resource benefit can serve as a useful, cost-effective, and efficient tool for reintroducting fire and achieving broad-scale management goals.

9) Improve Data Collection and Utilization: The state and its partners will support the effective and efficient gathering, synthesis, and communication of beneficial fire data, to improve transparency, accountability, and adaptive management.

You can find all of the detailed information in the Strategic Plan, and we highly recommend downloading and reading the document. Saving our forests and our communities in these changing and challenging times is going to require an “all hands-on deck” approach.

Unfortunately, even as we write this, the southwestern states are experiencing extreme fire weather and behavior, resulting in numerous unseasonable fires including the Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon fires in New Mexico that escaped from controlled burning. This has led to reactionary calls to end the practice altogether. In response to the drumbeat of criticism, on May 20, 2022, the U.S. Forest Service under Chief Randy Moore issued a directive to hold off on any further prescribed burning on national forest system lands in order to “conduct a 90-day review of protocols, decision support tools and practices ahead of planned operations this fall.“ 

We are grateful that the State of California and its diverse partners have decided to lead with the science. They are providing the much needed leadership to find a pathway way out of the existential threat that historical forest mismanagement coupled with climate change now pose to California’s communities and legacy ecosystems. While there is always risk, the stakes are too high if we do not prioritize making our forests resilient by significantly expanding beneficial fire where the timing and the location are appropriate.  May it be so. 

More links:

Download the strategy

Insight:  CapRadio with Vicki Gonzales  Listen to Vicki Gonzales on Insight, CapRadio, May 11, 2022 discussing the plan with Patrick Wright, Sara Clark, and Craig Thomas. Use the slider to go to the interview at 9:38.

Read the press release from Governor Newsom’s office here.

Learn more: Go directly to the California Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force.

The philosophy for the nation’s conservation goals under the Biden-Harris administration are contained in Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful (May 2021), which broadly outlines the means by which the administration will meet its goal to conserve “30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.” The first year progress report for the initiative was issued in December 2021. Central to meeting the goals of the plan is the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas, which is “intended to be an accessible, updated, and comprehensive tool through which to measure the progress of conservation, stewardship, and restoration efforts across the United States in a manner that reflects the goals and principles of the America the Beautiful initiative.” The atlas is currently under development after receiving public comment in response to the January 2022 Federal Register notice. Learn more about the American the Beautiful initiative here

On Earth Day, April 22, 2022, President Biden issued an executive order to address the threats facing our nation’s forests. The executive order, “Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies,” affirms the importance of protecting and preserving forests—and explicitly, old-growth and mature forests--citing the essential benefits that forests provide for water and air quality, carbon storage, recreational value, and timber production.  Federal land managers are tasked under the order to conduct an inventory of old-growth and mature forests, analyze threats to them, including from wildfires and climate change, and to develop policies to “institutionalize climate-smart management and conservation strategies” that address these threats. The order also directs agencies to address deforestation on the global scale. It remains to be seen if the result of this effort will include scaled-up tree planting in the wake of forest fires. In our dry western region, scientists warn that extensive tree planting as it is currently practiced will contribute further to fire hazard, reduced climate resiliency, and loss of biodiversity. We will be watching closely to ensure that strategies that emerge are, in fact, “climate-smart management.” 

In May 2022, the Biden-Harris administration announced $68.4 million in ecosystem restoration projects that are part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by the President in November 2021. Spread over 20 states, many of the projects are simple mitigation and restoration projects meant to repair damage that would not have occurred if the root causes of destruction, such as unsustainable livestock grazing on public lands, were significantly reduced. The band-aid approach hasn’t worked in the past, and with each passing year the loss of biodiversity grows more dire. A transformative new approach to conservation is needed to attack the causes of ecosystem degradation at the source.  

While we can and do support certain types of active management of our forests, Montana Republican Senator Steve Daines appears to have a misguided view of how forest management is conducted. He and other like-minded Republicans are laboring under the illusion that forest management—now, almost exclusively, fuels reduction—is being held up by pesky environmental review. Introduced by Daines in 2021, Senate bill 2561 proposes to remove the requirement that public land managers consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when there is new information concerning a species in the area that is protected under the Endangered Species Act. Instead, Daines’ bill would require federal land managers to adhere to an existing forest land management plan, regardless of new information and science affecting the species. Some of the nation’s forest plans are decades old at this point, and do not reflect our current understanding about climate change, fire, and threats to wildlife.

Randi Spivak from the Center for Biological Diversity compiled data from the Forest Service using the Freedom of Information Act and found that “[O]n average the Forest Service completes five to six landscape level consultations per year, the majority of which are finished in a matter of weeks. For example, in 2017 the Fish and Wildlife Service completed a programmatic consultation covering nine national forests in the Sierra Nevada region following the designation of critical habitat for three endangered frog species in just ten days.  This consultation implemented new management requirements designed to protect the habitat of frogs from sedimentation, road building and pollution.” That seems reasonable--unless you are a frog hater. Then saving those ten days might really make sense, but we don’t think that’s what Americans want. We have an Endangered Species Act for a good reason:  most of us don’t want to drive species to extinction.

News Bytes from the Front

Caldor Fire Recovery: An Update

The Caldor Fire burned portions of two national forests (Eldorado National Forest and Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit) for over 60 days beginning in August 2021--totaling 221,835 acres. Beginning on the west slope near Grizzly Flat, it was only the second fire in California’s history to burn over the crest of the Sierra Nevada. In all, 81 structures were damaged and 1,003 were destroyed. Powerlines, roads, campgrounds, and other infrastructure were also damaged. Vegetation on the western portion of the fire was severely burned, but significant areas to the middle and eastern portions of the fire burned in ways that were beneficial. Recovery of the human landscape and ecosystems is a slow process after a fire. You can read more about that here.

There are many activities that are underway right now to support the gradual process of recovery on the national forests. The project links below can be used to track these projects as they develop:

Grizzly Flat Community Fuelbreak: The Eldorado National Forest is proposing a shaded fuelbreak along forest roads that surround Grizzly Flat. One purpose of the fuelbreak is to enable safe ingress and egress from the community.

Caldor Fire Tribal Native Plant Restoration Project: Tribal partners are working with the Eldorado National Forest at culturally significant areas and sensitive plant sites that burned in the 2021 Caldor Fire. They will reduce fuels (via hand felling/thinning/piling, chipping) and re-establish native plants at these sites.

Sugar Pine Foundation Planting Project: The Sugar Pine Foundation Proposes to plant 1500 Western White Pines and 1000 Red Firs near NFS recreation sites (trailheads and campgrounds in Amador County) that were impacted by the Caldor Fire in 2021.

Caldor Fire Reforestation Along Mormon Emigrant Trail and Silver Fork Road: This project will plant trees along these roads, covering about 200 acres.

We expect in the coming months that additional projects will be proposed to remove trees that are hazards and reduce fuel loads. Additional reforestation is being discussed in the western portion of the fire that burned severely. Land managers on the national forest also recognize that some areas that burned beneficially will need to have follow up prescribed fire to maintain the benefits and manage fire risk. We are encouraged by this thinking and will be working to support their efforts to restore periodic fire to the Caldor Fire footprint.

Forest Plan Revisions: Sierra and Sequoia National Forests

Last reviewed by the public in 2019, the final plans for the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests may be released for final review by the public in mid-June. Recent updates provided by the Forest Service indicate that they listened to our comments on Wild and Scenic Rivers and made important revisions to their eligibility analysis. Information on the planning process and sustainable recreation, wilderness recommendation process, the Pacific Crest National Trail and other resources can be reviewed here. We will report back with a full update once the final plans are released for review.

Region 5 Post-Disturbance Hazardous Tree Management Project

Region 5 of the Forest Service is proposing a new approach to approving the removal of hazard trees along forest roads. They have developed environmental assessments (EAs) for three zones in California covering nine national forests. Two of these zones are in the Sierra Nevada covering the Plumas-Lassen National Forests and Sierra-Sequoia-Inyo National Forests, respectively. The hazard tree removal operations are focused on the footprints of recent fires. Within these fire footprints, the project is confined to areas near roads, trails, and facilities and targets trees that have a genuine risk of falling on the identified infrastructure in the next several years. Given the extensive area burned and overlapping roads system and infrastructure, we think the three zone-wide hazard tree EAs make sense to address public safety in a manner that is efficient and protects resources. We asked in our comments on the project that roads that are not highly used, e.g., many level 2 roads, not be included in the decision and instead be considered for closure. The Forest Service expects to finalize its decisions on these EAs in June.

Announcements

Sierra Forest Legacy's Executive Director, Susan Britting, has announced her plans to step away from her role at the helm of Sierra Forest Legacy, which she has held since 2012. Although she certainly has earned a well-deserved retirement--Sue first served as SFL's science and policy consultant beginning in 1998--she plans to continue to stay on to help with Legacy's ongoing conservation work. A brief summary of the position follows. For futher details, go to this page.

Job Announcement: Executive Director

Sierra Forest Legacy is seeking an executive director to lead our effort to conserve biodiversity and ecosystems in the Sierra Nevada. We seek a dynamic leader capable of integrating the science and policy that forms the foundation for conservation with the ability to work with conservation allies, decision makers, and other stakeholders to protect sensitive resources in the bioregion.

Sierra Forest Legacy’s mission is to engage land managers, scientists, and stakeholders in the management of Sierra Nevada ecosystems to protect and restore the unparalleled beauty and natural values of the region.  We apply the best practices of science, advocacy and grassroots engagement through coalition building to safeguard forest lands throughout the Sierra Nevada.  

The full job description and application process is posted here. This position is open until filled. The first review of applications will occur after June 24.  We are seeking to fill this position in September 2022.

Sierra Forest Legacy, a project of the Tides Center, is an equal opportunity employer. We strongly encourage and seek applications from women, people of color, including bilingual and bicultural individuals, as well as members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender communities.

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Here's some things for you to watch, read, and listen to when you have a few minutes. We hope you are all staying well, and we wish you and your loved ones good health during these trying times.

The American Lung Association has released “Can Prescribed Fires Mitigate Health Harm? A Review of Air Quality and Public Health Implications of Wildfire and Prescribed Fire.” The report makes clear that wildfire activity is predicted to increase in the decades ahead, historical fire suppression policies are insufficient for longer-term fire management, and prescribed fire can be used to mitigate the negative air quality, health, and safety impacts of large-scale wildfires.

Accelerating the Use of Prescribed Fire Through Policy and Partnerships was the highlight of the annual meeting of Rural Voices for Conservation (RVCC) held May 24 and 26th. You can download the slide presentation for the session here. Supporting papers from RVCC can be downloaded here.

Visit the SNAPP (Science for Nature and People Partnership) website, Wildfires and Human Health to download and read several articles and analyses.

Don't miss this presentation, "Adapting Western US Forests to Climate Change and Wildfires: Ten Common Questions," created by Portland, Oregon-based Sustainable Northwest.

From the Fire Learning Network, upcoming Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) opportunities:

Lake County Cal-TREX, Lake County, CA: Get details here.

Plumas Ca-TREX, Plumas County, CA. This training, hosted by the Plumas Underburn Cooperative, will continue with on-call opportunities for burning throughout the spring.

Research Briefs from the California Fire Science Consortium. Get the latest science in the world of fire and fire ecology.

The SCIENCEx webinar series brings together scientists and land management experts from across U.S. Forest Service research stations and beyond to explore the latest science and best practices for addressing large natural resource challenges across the country. You can view recorded webinars, and sign up to participate in upcoming zoom webinars.

 

Science in Brief: Higher Incidence of High-Severity Fire is Associated with Industrially Managed Forests

Levine, Jacob I.; Collins, Brandon M.; Steele, Zachary L.; de Val Pine, Perry; and Scott L. Stephens. 2022. Higher incidence of high-severity fire in and near industrially managed forests. Front Ecol Environ 2022 doi:10.1002/fee.2499.

Forests in the Sierra Nevada are fire adapted and prior to fire suppression experienced periodic low to mixed severity fire. High severity fire is an important aspect of these forests and creates openings for new forests to develop, and burned snags to support insect and bird diversity. In recent years though, the portion of high severity fire is greater for some fires than would have been expected prior to the era of fire suppression. This greater component of high severity fire is a concern due to changes in habitat for mature forest species and more severe impacts to soils and aquatic systems. How land ownership, and by inference different land management practices, influence the incidence of high severity fire is the focus of this recent study.

Levine et al. (2022) looked at 154 fires in California dating from 1985 to 2019. They selected all fires greater than 40 acres during this period that affected both industrial timberlands and public lands. They classified land ownership of these forests into three types (private industrial; public lands; other private lands) and examined the relationship between these ownership types and the occurrence of high severity fire. After controlling for climatic and environmental effects on fire severity, they found that where fires occurred, the odds of high-severity fire on private industrial lands were 1.8 times greater than on public lands and 1.9 times greater than on other private lands. This means that there was a greater likelihood of high severity fire being located on industrial lands as compared to other lands. They also found high-severity fire incidence to be greater in areas adjacent to private industrial land. Together, the authors conclude that the prevailing forest management practices on private industrial timberland may increase high-severity fire occurrence.

Fig 2 from Levine et al 2022

Figure 2, above, from Levine, J.I., Collins, B.M., Steel, Z.L., de Valpine, P. and Stephens, S.L., 2022. Higher incidence of high‐severity fire in and near industrially managed forests. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 2022 doi:10.1002/fee.2499.

What, you might ask, are the “prevailing practices” on private industrial lands in the study area? The area is dominated by even-aged management with rotations of 50-60 years. This means that all the trees in a forest stand (e.g., 20 to 30 acres) are removed when the stand reaches the target age and is then replanted. This practice, referred to as clearcutting, has been going on in the study area for over 40 years, leaving significant portions of the forest landscape with stands that range in age from 0 to 40 years old. Uniform plantations up to 20-25 years old, i.e., younger, even-aged forests, have been shown to have more extreme fire behavior than other treated stands (Stephens and Moghaddas 2005). This may be contributing to the greater amounts of high severity fire on private industrial lands. These findings point to the critical need to more closely examine how industrial forest practices on private lands influence fire behavior. These practices should be revised to create stand structures and fuel profiles with less fire hazard and that are more resilient. This would benefit the industrial forests as well as adjacent forests. 

The findings also point to a growing concern about reforestation practices following wildfires. When post-wildfire tree planting emulates the reforestation that typically follows clearcutting, it is likely to contribute to extreme fire behavior and more high severity fire. This type of reforestation after wildfire is being proposed and conducted on 100s to 1000s of contiguous acres and will result in extensive areas of uniform, dense, young forests that are a high fire hazard. Reducing tree planting densities and the early use of prescribed fire can be used to manage these planted areas to reduce fire hazard, but this is not yet the common practice for the Forest Service or other land owners. A recent technical report released by the Pacific Southwest Research Station (Meyers et al. 2021) emphasizes the importance of reforestation efforts including the reestablishment of key ecological processes, like fire, to provide for ecosystem integrity and function. Unless new approaches to reforestation that embrace and plan for ecological disturbances like fire are adopted, these planted areas will be extremely vulnerable to fire, likely support high severity fire when burned, and likely be a fire hazard to adjacent forests.      

 

Spotlight on Species: Kit-kit-dizze (Chamaebatia foliolosa)

Image above: Kit-kit-dizze (Chamaebatia foliolosa), sheltering a California quail nest. Photo by Christopher Scott Brush, USFS.

Kit-kit-dizze--also known as mountain misery, bear clover, and bear mat--may well be the most emblematic plant of any occurring in the understory of the forests of the Sierra Nevada. It’s endemic to California (that means, it doesn’t occur anywhere else in the world), and the heart of its distribution is here in the Sierra Nevada. It ranges along the western slopes of the southern end of the Cascade Range in California and throughout the Sierra Nevada, at elevations between two and seven thousand feet from Shasta County south to Kern County.

The name kit-kit-dizze comes from the Miwok name for the plant. A member of the Rose Family of plants, it is a low growing shrub (15 to 60 cm tall), with dark green, finely dissected, fern-like leaves. The flowers are white with five petals, surrounding numerous yellow stamens, resembling the flowers of strawberries and blooming May through July. Being highly resinous, its sticky leaves were considered a nuisance by early settlers, sheep ranchers, and loggers—hence the name, mountain misery. The resins are highly aromatic with a fragrance that is considered heavy and overpowering to some, and pleasant to others. The Miwok were reported to have used the leaves to make a hot tea herbal remedy for colds, coughs, rheumatism, chicken pox, measles, smallpox, and other diseases causing skin eruptions.

Although not considered to be a good forage plant by stockmen, it comprises a large proportion (37 percent in one study) of the volume of winter forage for black-tailed deer. Its extensive root systems, which have been measured up to five feet deep and 82 feet long, are extremely good at stabilizing slopes and preventing erosion, a factor that is especially important after wildfire. It also enhances the moisture absorption capacity of soils. In 1980 it was found to be a nitrogen-fixing species. This means that it produces nitrogen nodules on its roots, due to a symbiotic association with bacteria that are able to capture nitrogen from the air. Because of its historical prevalence throughout the Sierra Nevada, its role as a nitrogen source in growing the vast forests of the region has probably not been fully appreciated.  

Mountain misery is supremely adapted to the frequent fire regime in the Sierra Nevada. In the forests where it grows, experts believe the historical (natural) fire return frequency averaged from 4 to 8 years. The resinous plant is highly flammable and carries surface fire. Its low profile and dominance would have helped to prevent fire from reaching the crowns of the trees. It is primarily a clonal species, reproducing from rhizomes, roots, and the root crown. After fire, it re-sprouts and re-establishes easily, attaining dominance of the understory within 3 to 4 years. Through competition for moisture, it may limit the number and therefore the density of conifer seedlings that can successfully re-establish after fire. At the same time, the plant provides shelter and protection for conifer seedlings (the “nurse plant” effect), and releases nitrogen into the root zones. Taken together, these facts suggest that this species has a critical role in creating the types of fire adapted old-growth forests with widely spaced trees that we associate with the healthy forests of historical times, before universal fire suppression and massive logging.

Anecdotally, animals are known to roll in the ashes of burned mountain misery, presumably this has a beneficial effect, perhaps they like the scent or it helps to repel insects.   

Mountain misery is moderately shade tolerant but will disappear under closed canopy in the absence of fire. While it is primarily associated with ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, and red fir forests, in the early stages of forest succession it is also found as an understory species in black oak and manzanita dominated forests. Without fire, we can expect that such associations will become more and more fuel packed and less fire-resilient over time, and mountain misery will drop out of the community under closed canopy.

It remains to be seen how this species will adapt to ongoing human activities and climate change. Aldo Leopold could easily have been speaking about mountain misery, kit-kit-dizze, when he wrote, “If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” With each passing year increasing the number of acres of forests that burn with unprecedented ferocity, it may well be time to stop and think about how nature grew these forests in the first place. Intelligent tinkering is required.  

 

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Help Protect Our Sierra Nevada Forests

The work we do to protect the forests, with all of their unique and rare plants and animals, and the many wild places of the Range of Light cannot be done without the generosity of our supporters. Please help us to keep up our efforts. You can make a safe and secure donation from this website. Thanks to all who have so generously supported our work - together we form a multitude of voices. Join us in saying, "Si, se puede" on behalf of the wild forests of the Sierra Nevada.   

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise."
~Aldo Leopold

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