Crow Peak Fire Healthy and Beautiful

Crow Peak Fire map, from National Wildfire Coordinating Group Incident Information System, screen cap 2016.07.01 06:23 MDT.
Crow Peak Fire map, from National Wildfire Coordinating Group Incident Information System, screen cap 2016.07.01 06:23 MDT.

Lightning set Crow Peak on fire over a week ago. As of 8:30 p.m. MDT last night, the fire had burned 1,677 acres—2.6 square miles. In town terms, draw a rectangle over Aberdeen with Presentation College and Northern State has diagonal corners, burn that up plus the three blocks east to Dakota Street—that’s the size of the Crow Peak fire. 537 personnel had achieved 15% containment. No structures have burned yet.

Outdoorsman and teacher Bob Speirs lives just west of Crow Peak. He’s not too worried about the fire. Aside from all the looky-loos and helicopters, Speirs says the fire is actually a beautiful thing:

Mr. and Mrs. Speirs in the Hills on a more humid day.
Mr. and Mrs. Speirs in the Hills on a more humid day.

I have lived in the western shadows of Crow Peak for nearly three decades and in all of that time, I have never had this much company.Long lines of tourists pack the drive sitting with cameras and binoculars watching the mountain shed an irritating layer of pines from its back after a fortuitous lightning strike gave her the opportunity to lose some weight.

…History tells us that between burrowing beetles and fire, the pine forest has been regularly swept away to make room for oak and aspen, grasses and wildlife. Each time those who are merely tourists mourn the darkening of a specific view.

If you are only here for a short time, it seems such an inconvenience and perhaps even a loss to have a view you cherish altered during your stay here, be that stay days or years.

But if you live long enough, or have faith that you might, a fire can be a beautiful thing [Bob Speirs, “If You Live Long Enough,” South Dakota Hunting, 2016.06.30].

Looking west every morning to see Crow Peak’s Bactrian humps catching the first sunlight was one of my favorite parts of living in Spearfish. I ache a little to see photos of the mountain smoking black, but I take comfort in Bob’s long view. Fire is dangerous and destructive, but it’s how the forest works. Don’t fret the change… and don’t clog up Bob’s driveway.


24 Responses to Crow Peak Fire Healthy and Beautiful

  1. Steve Sibson

    “Fire is dangerous and destructive, but it’s how the forest works.”

    How much CO2 do they create?

  2. Steve, forest fires are a natural process that rejuvenate the forest. You are taking far too much pleasure in pre-empting discussion of various topics by jumping in right away to steer discussion off course to your preferred hobbyhorses. Please set your ego aside and stop trying to dominate the conversation.

  3. Nick Nemec

    I’m just waiting for Sibby to turn this post on a forest fire into a never ending debate on abortion. I know he can do it, it’s all a mater of if he chooses to.

  4. Cory is right: Go drive through Custer State Park where we had fires many years ago. Very nice looking young trees , and lots of grass for Wildlife.

  5. Steve Sibson

    “forest fires are a natural process that rejuvenate the forest”

    So you want to narrow the discussion based on a naturalistic worldview, which is also found in paganism. So then the role of humans is not natural? If so, then should humans not try and put out forest fires?

    My worldview has a different role of humans than yours. If you want to label that as a “hobbyhorse” in order the denigrate it, then you are fueling those that attack me personally instead of addressing the points I bring to the discussion. I do not want my role on this blog to be about me. So if everyone cooperates and stop the silly attacks, then there is more room for other opinions and less distractions.

    Cory I hope this comment is considered a constructive attempt for the benefit of your blog. Here is a link supports by argument regarding the worldview of pagan naturalism:

    http://spiritualnaturalistsociety.org/what-is-humanistic-paganism/

  6. mike from iowa

    The stuff that grows back after a fire-is it desirable replacement or do you just want the burn filled in with cover for wildlife?

    Seems to me if nature replenishes the burn there will be sunlight crowding aspen and other less desirable flora instead of stately conifers. My humble opinion.

  7. Don Coyote

    @Steve: Don’t forget about all the mercury being released. Over 40 tons of mercury are released every year by forest fires. Not all the “positive” effects of forest fires are positive.

  8. Paul Seamans

    Photographs from the Custer expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 show how a healthy Black Hills forest is supposed to look. Forest fires have been contained largely because of all the houses being built out among the trees that need protection from fire.

    The Black Hills of today barely resembles the Black Hills of 1874.

  9. Don Coyote

    @cah: “…forest fires are a natural process that rejuvenate the forest”

    Not always. Depending of the intensity of the fire, the soil can be sterilized by the heat making rejuvenation difficult and prolonged. Also fire reduces the porosity of the soil and creates water repellant layers which in turn increases runoff and erosion. Fine carbon black particles retains water and will turn the soil into a clay like gumbo in the lowlands and grasslands. Persistent soil degradation following a fire is not uncommon in the arid climate typically found in the West, Black Hills included.

  10. Coyote, your contrarianism does not negate the fact that natural fires like this one generally do more good than harm. Intense fires arise from more fuel, and more fuel is present, as Paul points out, from our allowing forests to grow too thick through overzealous fire suppression to protect overdevelopment of the Black Hills.

  11. Richard Schriever

    Sam@ – Not only there, but other areas that have experienced wildfires in the last few decades are looking healthy as well. In addition, there are a great number of places where both logging and simple conservation practices have thinned out some old growth and/or beetle damage instead of just waiting for wildfire to do the same job.

    Sibby – FYI – the Forest Service typically does not “try to put out” wildfires. Rather, they try to “contain and control” them – Most specifically, to direct them away from human habitation areas. BTW – clearing away old dead growth (either by fire or other means) clears the way for NEW GROWTH – which just happens to sequester more CO2 than allowing the old growth and dead growth to stand as is. The math/science has been done on this – maybe you should investigate it – vs. just doing the old political knee-jerking.

  12. Richard Schriever

    @Mike from Iowa – Aspen is considered a “transitional cover” species. I.E., in the long-term forestry perspective – it “temporarily” (couple of centuries) occupies a burn area until the Spruce/Pine forests can re-establish.

  13. Richard Schriever

    @ Coyote – degrades the soil in regard to what? Human uses? Changes the soil types/conditions – sure. There are a variety of plant species that can thrive in a “degraded” soil. Maybe not ones that humans find useful – but……….

  14. Donald Pay

    Interesting discussion.

    Fire is neither good or bad. It is part of the environment. Species have evolved with fire for eons. In some pine species, fire is required to stimulate seeds to break dormancy. In other cases, fire clears a patch in the forest canopy that allows early successional species to grow. These early successional species then create the environment that allows other plants to invade.

    I have always been interested in what is called “patch dynamics,” which is the rate at which new environments are created by various biotic and abiotic factors. Some patches are small, such as beaver dams or badger holes. Others, like many fires, can change large landscapes. But even in fires, spots get skipped, or some places burn cooler. Different environments are created. I remember being fascinated by the work of William Platt looking at badger holes in Iowa prairies. Certain plant species colonized those holes as the badgers left, and the plants seemed to be dependent on a certain frequency and spacing of those holes or other openings made in the prairie.

    Anyway, I like thinking about this stuff.

  15. John Wrede

    Coyote and Sibby are once again thinking in conservative short terms…….. All that alleged soil damage is neither ubiquitous or common across the length or breadth of a burn and when it does occur, (only as a result of high heat intensity that was not ever characteristic of historical natural fires) soil organisms and organic material slowly revitalize those so called sterilized areas. Slope and soil type before the fire are more determinative of a fire’s damage to growth mediums. I regularly visit Jasper and was even part of the response team for the two weeks it took to bring that fire under control. Those that think that fire is destructive on a larger scale need to review the before and after of that and other fires to understand that nothing of ecological significance occurs in similarity to a McDonalds Drive Up. Which is exactly what Bob has said. Soil is seldom if ever permanently degraded by fire. Productivity might be hampered for a time but it needs to be understood that productivity is hampered worse by a dense canopy cover that, after a period of time, will prevent everything from growing. A Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station Study back in the early 1990’s (See Hull Seig) demonstrated that there were no viable seed or rhizomes underneath a forest canopy that exceeded 100 basal area. That is generally the area where fire burns the hottest. So to say that soil sterilization from fire is the only cause of productivity loss is typical simplistic thinking.

  16. Paul Seamans

    John Wrede, Cory, and others make very valid points about the role of fire in a healthy forest. The main reason that they can be so destructive now is that they have suppressed since Smokey Bear was just a kid. There is simply to much fuel now versus 100 years ago.

  17. mike from iowa

    Congress just passed a bill on party line votes to cede 2 million acres of forest to each state to use as they see fit-which likely means they will be sold to private loggers and citizens will lose access to the lands.

  18. mike from iowa

    Thanks, Richard. In iowa we don’t see many forest fires. Heck we don’t have many forests. Lord we got cornfields.

  19. Good perspective, John W—you reinforce Speirs’s point well against the fleeting contrarianism of Sibby and Coyote.

  20. John Wrede

    Don P also brings up a point with the “patch dynamics” notation. Unless people actually look at a wildland fire area 6 months to a year post burn, they perceive that the entire landscape is scorched and black. That is generally the case at ground level for a period of time until moisture arrives (sometimes it doesn’t have too- I’ve seen burns green up without significant moisture within two weeks) but at canopy height, the complexion of the landscape is far different. Wildfire always creates a mosaic of timber in patches. Those patches more often than not have an original stand density of less than 40 basal area and are located on lower slope aspects and sometimes have diverse species associated with them. These patches are the closest condition to historical fires where stand densities were no where close to what they are managed for today. Sadly, over 50 years ago in the Black Hills, timber managers made the decision to manage for what is called “even age stands” that are intended to produce large volumes of marketable timber to the exclusion of most other resources and uses. (it is the worst strategy for wildlife and ecological sustainability that there is) That management strategy is what has given us these enormous, monotypic (pine dominant) stand densities of 120 basal area in spite of both commercial and pre-commercial thinning practices that only reduce the stems per acre to something less than 90. As Paul notes, if there are any amount of ladder fuels or slash on the ground in those areas, wildland fire (and even prescribed fire that gets away) can cause fire and added heat to spot out and run for miles. The “even age” stand management decision was nearly cemented into the Black Hills National Forest Plan and attempts have been made in the past two forest plan amendments to modify the strict timber production principles of the management strategy but that has only resulted in a shorter “re-entry” into timber sale areas. (That is to say, timber sale contracts are being let on a rotation that is less than 25 years in a lot of cases [ use to be 40 – 50 years minimum] and tree dbh is less than half of what it was for saw logs back in the 1960’s) All this indifferent to “uneven age stand management that increases diversity in density and vegetative components and reduces the fire risk. Congress and the timber industry have been on a mission, for decades, to make public lands produce commodities be they cattle, or timber, or minerals and now, 50 to 60 years later, politicians running interference for commercially driven management of our public lands are demanding that agencies like the US Forest Service spend over 50% of it’s annual budget on fire suppression. That is money that comes out of the taxpayers pocket, not the timber sale contractor or the mill owner operator. And those that think that timber or grazing or mining pay for themselves are sadly dillusional. We’ve had the mt pine beetle excess now for going on 15 years ( a longer run than at any time in the annual history of the pine beetle in the Black Hills over the past 100 years) which is yet another negative by-product of even age stand management tree densities and lousy diversity; then along comes Noem and Thune who appropriate millions to fight that battle never once understanding that it’s their blasted meddling in responsible, scientifically driven land stewardship that created the problems in the first place. It’s not dissimilar to corn ethanol. Subsidize private industry and destroy the public’s water. But then, all the simpletons do is point fingers at groups like the Sierra Club and play the blame shame game……….. Biggest ruse ever foisted on the American people.

  21. John, I take it the “even age” stands are for logging efficiency: crews go out and harvest a whole bunch of the same age/thickness/quality timber in one spot instead of having to move around, right? Can logging still be done profitably and responsibly in a forest with patch dynamic?

  22. John Wrede

    Depends upon the size of the patch as well as the size of the trees. Even age stand management is for one thing and one thing only; producing board feet of timber per acre! e.g. the difference is between 10 older growth saw logs that take 75-85 years to grow to market size versus 100 30 year trees that produce the same amount of board feet without the same dimensional characteristics. In order to keep logging companies and mills in business and adding to the economy, volume (even though the trees are smaller) is the essential ingredient.
    In a lot of cases, patches consist of marketable saw logs, some that could be considered old growth. Management prescriptions now consider old growth values in every sale so you’ll have some leave trees regardless. It’s an feeble attempt at modifying the management prescription to satisfy NEPA and other resource values. Logging in those cases is usually classified as “seed cuts” where everything is removed in “patches” except a handful of “seed trees”, which tend to replace the stand with all even age trees to repeat the cycle.
    Here’s another issue to think about…. The days of the logger with a chain saw, cant hook, and a few of the other traditional tools are reaching extinction so the idea of logging efficiency now is related to stand density and how quickly you want the stand to regenerate from logging (seed trees left) and other management prescriptions. Patches are difficult to equate with the size of timber sale areas because in all likelihood, patches are too small for a timber sale contract to be honestly profitable unless they the take every last stick of marketable timber. If that is done, there is substantial risk of loss of regeneration potential. Also, there is greater risk of storm/wind damage for the remaining trees. Logging efficiency is now correlated to multi-million dollar equipment rather than the hard hat wearing logger with a chain saw that can no longer compete. The mechanization is fairly mobile but it has it’s limitations so timber sales sometimes go begging because the contractors can’t or won’t take the equipment into various terrain types . Terrain and slope also limits extraction of the logs and transport to the mill. Haul roads and log deck construction are sometimes an issue and not always completed as a condition of the logging contract. Who pays for that construction is not always negotiable so it can be an additive expense that the timber sale contractor can’t afford. Logging efficiency is also related to the size of the trees. Sometimes post/pole cuts are efficiently done but net very little profit. Even age stands have gotten smaller in dbh (as mentioned) in the past 50 years while re-entry into previous timber sale areas has gotten shorter. The smaller trees don’t permit much flexibility in milling operations so the products generated might be something that the market doesn’t need. Construction grade 2X4’s versus 2X6’s or 2X8′. Efficiency isn’t a simple issue.

  23. John, if efficiency and access make such a difference for mechanized logging, why don’t they do what mechanized farmers do: plant the prairie to trees and harvest timber in East River? Would timber-quality trees not take as well out here in the flat? Would the cost of buying or renting the land for tree farms prohibit the effort?