The Importance of Reforestation after a Forest Fire

The Importance of Reforestation after a Forest Fire

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In 2011, the German government set an aggressive agenda to bring about climate change. They launched an important initiative in Bonn, Germany for the restoration of degraded forests around the globe. The initiative was referred to as the “Bonn Challenge” and was ratified by government leaders from around the world. The challenge was to restore over 300 million acres of forest by 2020. The overall goal is the reforestation of over 750 million acres by 2030. However, there is an opposing force to reforestation that remains out of our control. That culprit is a forest fire. Different from other types of restoration, reforestation after a forest fire presents a unique set of challenges.

The size and magnitude of forest fires in recent years are the largest contributing factor to the need for reforestation. For example, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), fires in the Amazon rain forest have been on the uprise for at least a decade. There were upwards of 30,000 separate fire events in August of 2019 alone.

Yet another horrific example is the devastating fires of this past year in California, Oregon, and Washington States. In fact, in Oregon, the recent forest fires were the greatest natural disaster the state has ever endured in its recorded history. For this and other reasons, the need for reforestation is greater now than ever before.

The Importance of Reforestation after a Forest Fire

Why is Reforestation after a Forest Fire Important?

When a forest fire takes place, the consequence is far worse than the mere loss of beautiful landscape. Forests are home to a wide array of natural wildlife. Animals such as deer, moose, rabbits, quail, and wild turkeys rely on healthy forest habitats to live. A forest fire destroys the homes of these and dozens of other animal species. Likewise, forests produce a long list of products that human beings have become accustomed to using. These products include lumber, paper, medicines, specialty herbs, nuts, fruit, and much more.

Many are organizing fervently for reforestation to plant new standing trees to replace lost trees. The strategy involves repairing soil, planting seedlings, and nurturing new tree plants to adulthood. Miraculously, by replacing destroyed trees, we restore the forest’s natural ecosystem. In fact, there are two primary ways that reforestation takes place and they are as follows:

  1. Natural regeneration refers to a damaged forest’s natural process of regenerating itself over a long period.   
  2. Artificial regeneration refers to an attempt to regenerate a damaged forest by planting seedlings and cultivating any existing standing trees.

Furthermore, reforestation is important to secure the sustainability of all the industries connected to the forest. For one, America’s fishing industry needs healthy forests to survive. Freshwater from snow-capped mountains often flows directly through forests to reach its ocean destination. Because of forest fire, water in the area can become terribly polluted. Reforestation is critical to reverse this negative impact on the earth’s ecosystem.

Who is Responsible for Reforestation after a Forest Fire?

Any environmentalist will tell you reforestation after a forest fire is a top priority. But one important question is this: Is there a group that manages reforestation? Thankfully, there is! In the United States, the Division of Forestry is the governing body responsible for overseeing reforestation. It all started in 1897 with the Forest Service Organic Administration Act. The purpose of this piece of legislation was to guarantee the reforestation of forestland damaged by fire. The act was signed by then-President William McKinley with the aim to improve national forests across the US.  

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) established the forestry department a few years prior to the Organic Administration Act. The job of this office was to evaluate the condition of all forests on US soil. Part of their responsibility was to address forests damaged during catastrophes such as wildfire. Eventually, the forestry department was expanded to a division of government known as the “Division of Forestry”. After the expansion, the division was able to protect millions of acres of forest land. This division is now called the Bureau of Forestry and oversees reforestation to this day.

Post Fire Logging

The Bureau of Forestry services establishes reforestation projects to recover forestland scorched by fire. They work diligently to revitalize national forests so that they remain an excellent resource for timber and wildlife. By the same token, logging companies contribute largely to the work of recuperating forests damaged by fire.  Loggers use large machinery to remove dead trees that are used to produce boards and similar products. Salvage logging, as it is called, assists in clearing burned trees that might otherwise become fuel for future fires.

There is some debate surrounding post-fire logging practices. An article by “the Atlantic” quotes critics saying that the practice further damages the soil. And they claim there is a danger that the machinery will accidentally introduce a foreign species of seed to an area while harvesting. Lastly, opponents claim that post-fire logging eliminates the habitat of animal species that might find a home in the dead trees. For example, woodpeckers are bird species that nest in fire-damaged trees.

Researchers from the Pacific Southwest Research Station put these theories surrounding the negative impact of post-fire logging to the test. In 2002, they produced a fire science study detailing the effect of logging and thinning after a massive forest fire in Northern California. After 10 years of continually studying the area, researchers concluded that salvage logging does not have as bad of a harsh impact on plant life as originally thought. As a result, the USDA continues to hire private companies to perform post-fire logging. This practice helps prepare the landscape for the reforestation process.

Tree Planting Nurseries

After a large disturbance such as a forest fire, the Bureau of Forestry develops an individual forest plan to begin the artificial regeneration of trees. To assist with reforestation after a forest fire the USDA has sponsored tree planting nurseries to support their revitalization efforts. Many of the programs were specifically created to assist in emergency situations where a forest is facing complete destabilization.

Here are a few of the tree planting nurseries; some of which have been in operation since the beginning of the 20th century:

  • Wind River Nursery is a program that has produced seedlings since 1901.  It was first established in Washington State to provide reforestation for wildfires in the Pacific Northwest.  
  • Bessey Nursery was established in 1902. It began as a collaborative effort at the University of Nebraska. The goal was to provide seedlings for Nebraska’s Sandhills area.  This nursery gave birth to the State Forest and a portion of the National Forest of Nebraska. 
  • The Knutson-Vandenberg Act of 1930 set the groundwork for tree nurseries. In addition, this act made a very important contribution to national reforestation. The act set precedence for sales of timber to be used towards the costs of reforestation. The K-V Act is still a primary source of contributions to the work of reforestation and other related endeavors
falls, salt creek, oregon
Courtesy of • Oregon Waterfall

Finding Enough Seedlings for Reforestation

When a forest fire takes place, some of the tree species often survive the fire. And equally important, some of the soil often survives the burn as well. In those cases, natural regeneration can take place. In other cases, the forest depends on artificial regeneration techniques. This strategy instituted together with tree-planting programs helps with recovery. One struggle which often arises, however, is finding enough seedlings to support the programs. Unfortunately, seedlings are not always abundantly available to the extent that the revitalization attempt requires. This problem is especially prevalent when many forests fall victim to wildfire in a short period of time.  The increase in demand for seed can become overwhelming.

For instance, Oregon landowners face a high demand for seedlings due to the Oregon Forest Practices Act (OFP). This act requires reforestation to take place within a two-year period.  Consequently, the demand for seedlings is often higher than the supply. Rodents, birds, and insects tend to dig up tree seeds and eat them. The success of each reforestation project depends greatly on the obtainability of seedlings.

To complicate the situation further, some of the guidelines surrounding seedlings have recently changed. One such change is that national forests are requiring more than one single species of tree seedling. This means not every species is acceptable to use in reforestation after a forest fire.  

Not Every Species of Tree is Good for Reforestation

Reforestation is not a “one size fits all” endeavor. Strict guidelines apply in every circumstance to ensure the survival of the forest. For instance, there are requirements to match the seedling species to the forest site. Seedlings being planted must have been cultivated in similar conditions as the forest site. Trustworthy nurseries can provide information about the environment, amount of sun, moisture, and even elevation in which their seedlings were raised.  

Notably, tree planters in the Northwest use elevation as a major determining factor for seedlings. They engage exclusively with nurseries that grow at elevations that match their own to guarantee the survival of the crop.  In an article published by Weizman Institute of Science, forest economist Sofia Faruqi explained the necessity of the strict guidelines:

“If you take the perspective that no matter what, more trees are better, that’s going to have unintended consequences… Restoration policy can no longer fail to address what kind of trees are being planted, or how it jibes with the larger health of the forest, the amount of water available, or the needs of local people

Sofia Faruqi
yosemite, cathetral rocks, usa
Courtesy of • Yosemite, California

A Change in Reforestation Strategies

Because of the difficulty in finding diverse supplies of seedlings, experts are exploring new planting strategies. Malcolm North, a USDA scientist is one of 25 forestry ecologists from the University of California. His team of researchers is working to build an improved model for reforestation after a forest fire. They are searching for new strategies that will emphasize variety in seedlings species and employ new spacing guidelines in planting.  

The group discovered that an update in spacing guidelines is necessary thanks to the Ponderosa Pines. Forest Services frequently plants Ponderosa Pines in the west. These fast-growing trees can reach heights above 12-feet faster than many other species. Malcolm North, in a National Geographic article, said:

“the pines-in-a-line method became a standard practice not because it’s the best way to grow a healthy or biodiverse forest but because it grows the fastest board feet possible”

Malcolm North

North explained that the problem with these huge trees is that they consume a lot of the area’s groundwater. Then, when forest fire occurs, those pines standing upwards of 12-feet provide the perfect fuel. Malcolm North continued saying,

“Pine plantations are notoriously, incredibly flammable until they’re 60 to 80 years old,” North said. Till they’re big enough for their crowns to be out of reach of flames, “if a fire goes through a 12×12 pine plantation it just gets vaporized. The trees go up like matchsticks.”

Malcolm North

Reforestation after a Forest Fire is Time Sensitive

Reforestation after a forest fire is literally a race against the clock. Conditions are ripe after a wildfire for unwanted species of vegetation to grow. Undesirable weeds can spring up and quickly dominate the area. Certain weeds can have a negative impact on future timber yields for years to come. Once these weeds take over the forest, it can take decades for reforestation efforts to be effective.

Delays in restoration also increase the cost of the reforestation efforts. Site preparation costs greatly increase with the passing of time. After a substantial amount of time has passed, a larger number of seedlings than anticipated may be required to sufficiently build the site into forestland again. Plus, the forests become more susceptible than they previously were to a future forest fire. Forests that are not promptly revitalized are harder to protect and, in turn, more dangerous to the surrounding communities.

Finally, delayed efforts have an adverse effect on fish and wildlife in the area. Forest fire drives animal life away from the area. This causes a major disruption in the local ecosystem. Every forest that has experienced fire is dependent on the return of animal life for its health and survival.

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