The Snowy mountain range, just west of Laramie, is most certainly a land of many uses. Residents from all over the state of Wyoming and well into Colorado go to the Snowy Mountains to hunt, fish, camp, harvest their Christmas trees, ski, snowboard, or snow-mobile. The national forest is also home to a multitude of native species, both flora and fauna. The streams and lakes are full of fish, and elk and moose wander aimlessly through high mountain meadows. It would be easy to believe there was not another human on the earth while camping in the remote regions of the national forest. However, the beautiful ecosystems that residents and tourists both enjoy teeter on a very fragile brink between “wild and beautiful” and “if we don’t do something, it will all be lost.”
“Elk Mountain is in worse condition than the rest of the Snowies. The dead fall is so thick under there, tree on top of tree on top of tree, that the light doesn’t even reach the ground. You can’t hardly walk through it, let alone ride through it,” says Bill Wells, a ranch hand on Elk Mountain Ranch just out of Hanna, Wyoming. Wells is certain that if any of the neighboring forests caught fire, it would mean the end of Elk Mountain Ranch.
The lack of human influence can be detrimental to a forest, such as in the Snowy Range. Across the Rocky Mountain West, pine beetles have killed 11.8 million acres of forest. At least 75% of forest loss is attributed to the pine beetle, not forest fires, logging, or other diseases. Good forest management practices, such as Free Thinning methods, allows the trees to be used for the timber industry, but still leaves healthy trees enough space to grow. Different sizes, ages, and spaces between trees can prevent the spread of disease, infestation, and reduce the harmful effects of a forest fire.
A healthy forest has four layers in it’s ecosystem. Each of these layers are vital to a healthy forest. If one of these layers is either over crowded, or under produced, it can result in detrimental effects for the forest and all of its residents.
Saturday, September 3, a forest fire started in Snake Creek area in the southern part of the Snowy Range, just north of the Colorado border. Forest fires are essential to the overall health of a forest, especially considering that many coniferous seeds will not sprout unless subject to extreme heat, such as in a fire. However, when the forest is filled with dead trees due to beetle kill, and a dense under-story, such as is found in the Snowy Range, a forest fire can become very dangerous.
A forest fire has a very important job: to clear out dead timber and overgrown brush that has accumulated in the years without fires. When this dead timber and ground clutter are allowed to burn, it releases nutrients back into the soil, clears out habitat for large ungulates and promotes the healthy growth of grasses and shrubs that these animals need to survive. But when the forest is full of dead timber (due to beetle kill or otherwise) and has been allowed to grow a dense under-story, a fire that would normally burn quickly through will instead grow to an unmanageable size. They would then burn hot enough and long enough to kill the healthy trees, destroy habitat, and spread to human communities.
Prescribed burning is one of the many solutions to over-forestation and out-of-control forest fires. Native Americans have been practicing controlled burns for thousands of years because it promotes the health of the undergrowth, and the animals that feed on it, also providing more healthy game animals for the people.
“Implementing some sort of prescribed burn or thinning project would be one way to mitigate the burn hazard issue on the forest,” says Amiah Warder, and Forest Service biologist who helps with prescribed burning in the Black Hills.
Oregon, with its extensive logging history and culture still has large stands of old growth forest, with clearly identifiable layers.
“The old growth forests are the pinnacle of forest management. It’s in the unmanaged wilderness areas that you get the serious crown fires,” says Adam Thomas, an Oregon sportsman and frequent visitor of the Cascade Range.
Despite differences in forests, be they deciduous, coniferous, or otherwise, all have similar basic needs when it comes to management. Water, sunlight, nutrients, and frequent ground clearing, or burns, are just a few. Humans can make a difference in maintaining the health of our treasured public lands by adequately managing and participating in the growth and development of the forests, just like people have been doing for thousands of years.