SEFS Researchers Awarded Grant to Study Fire Management in Washington

Three researchers at SEFS—including Research Associates Derek Churchill and Van Kane, as well as Research Ecologist Alina Cansler—are part of a team that was just awarded a $383,565 grant through the federal Joint Fire Science Program.

The project, “Landscape Evaluations and Prescriptions for Post-Fire Landscapes,” will focus on landscape approaches to post-fire management in north-central Washington. Specifically, the researchers will be studying recent fires in the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Colville national forests, with the goal of assisting forest managers in better understanding the effects of large wildfires on landscape conditions—and facilitating science-driven approaches to post-fire management.

Professor Andrew Larson from the University of Montana is the principal investigator, and $196,000 of the total grant will go to support the SEFS researchers. Other team members include Paul Hessburg and Nick Povak from the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station; Professor Jim Lutz from Utah State University; and Richy Harrod from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

2016_04_Fire Management Grant1Project Overview
Wildfires in the western United States are modifying the structure and composition of forests at rates that far exceed mechanical and prescribed fire treatments. Despite the huge number of acres affected by wildfires each year, our scientific understanding and social license regarding how to both critically assess and manage post-fire landscapes to maximize resilience to future disturbances is limited. Millions of burned acres are thus being left to recover naturally with little landscape-level analysis of the ecosystem structure and function that is likely to result. Credible stewardship of western forests must consider the effects of recent and future wildfires in a whole-landscape framework.

The “work” of wildfires can be beneficial in terms of reducing fuel loads (Lydersen et al. 2012), enhancing fire resistant species and structure (Larson et al. 2013), and creating early-seral habitat (Swanson et al. 2011). However, many recent wildfires are creating large high-severity patches in dry forest systems that were historically dominated by low- and mixed-severity fires (Cansler and McKenzie 2014). This may be creating conditions that are more susceptible to future high-severity disturbances or shifts to new ecosystem states that will not sustain the same ecological and social functions. We will provide managers with a framework to quantify the extent to which fires moved forest structure and composition towards or away from desired conditions by evaluating wildfire effects relative to reference conditions.

In north-central Washington, 2014 and 2015 were record-setting wildfire years, burning hundreds of thousands of acres on the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Colville national forests. These fires burned through a wide range of treated and untreated conditions at a range of severities, including re-burning past wildfires that received a range of post-fire management activities. These large fire years have presented a huge challenge to managers and collaborative stakeholder groups in terms of how to assess the need for post-fire management actions. Relatively little post-fire management has been proposed or implemented.

The researchers will address both ecological and management questions by:

  • Investigating how wildfires are shaping the temporal and spatial patterns of vegetation and fuels as influenced by combinations of annual weather, local climate, topography, prior fire, and prior management.
  • Assessing how forests have recovered from previous fires, with special focus on the effects of prior management.
  • Building tools to assist managers and stakeholder groups to assess how future fires may affect forest structure, and determine what combinations of post-fire management and green tree treatments will best enhance future forest resilience.
  • Showing which landscape assessment tools allow the best understanding of patterns of pre- and post-fire forest structure by comparing several tools across our study area with a particular focus on understanding and demonstrating the use of airborne LiDAR data.

Photos courtesy of Derek Churchill.

2016_04_Fire Management Grant2

SEFS Students Present Forest Stewardship Plan to King County

This past spring, 14 SEFS students had the unique opportunity to partner with King County to write a forest stewardship plan for the 645-acre Black Diamond Natural Area, south of Seattle near Maple Valley. Writing the plan was the focus of a new course set up to provide applied, real-world forest management opportunities for students: Applied Forest Ecology & Management (SEFS521/ESRM490).

Black Diamond Natural Area

Black Diamond Natural Area

King County had purchased this forested land through a series of acquisitions during the past decade as part of the King County Open Space Plan. These forests, which were previously managed as industrial plantations, needed a long-term stewardship plan that aligned with King County Parks’ goals of providing recreational opportunities to the public while maintaining the social, ecological and economic functions of the forests. King County has recognized that these dense, 15- to 30-year-old Douglas-fir plantations need active management to provide quality, long-term habitat and recreation. Yet the land is right in the middle of a rapidly developing area where managing forests presents a major social challenge. So to facilitate that planning process, the county partnered with SEFS on this course—co-taught by Research Associate Derek Churchill and Associate Professor Greg Ettl—that would give students direct experience designing a stewardship plan.

Specifically, students were tasked with designing a stewardship plan and stand-level prescriptions for Douglas-fir plantations where the major uses have now shifted to mountain biking, horseback riding and trail running. The quarter was split between field sampling and inventorying forest structure, and also class sessions covering stand dynamics, variable-density thinning, logging systems, FVS modeling and landscape analysis, among other topics. With the heavy field component, students gained hands-on experience with a number of forestry concepts, including mastering the Relaskop, using density diagrams, installing inventory plots and cruising timber, as well as how concepts from forest ecology directly apply to designing forest management treatments. Throughout the quarter, students were able to draw on the expertise of Professor Emeritus Peter Schiess and several SEFS alumni, including Paul Wagner, Paul Fisher and Jeff Comnick.

Sean Jeronimo

SEFS grad student Sean Jeronimo measuring tree heights in the project area.

Students also engaged and interacted with neighboring communities in Maple Valley that are adjacent to the project area—a sensitive social dimension that is essential to successful forest stewardship in the proximity of urban growth boundaries. These neighborly considerations hit especially close to home for one of the students, Mary Starr, who has lived in Maple Valley for four years and knows firsthand the close relationship these communities have to their natural areas. “If you can work with stakeholders to do forestry successfully here, you can do it anywhere,” says Churchill.

While each student was assigned to write a section of the final stewardship plan, Abraham Ngu, a Master of Forest Resources candidate, coordinated and edited the final plan as part of his capstone project. The course then culminated with the students giving a formal presentation of their management recommendations to county officials, including the lead environmental coordinators.

Feedback from the county was immensely positive. Officials praised the students and, perhaps most importantly, gave a sincere indication they would like to continue the collaboration. In his post-presentation email to the course instructors, Dave Kimmett, program manager of King County Parks, wrote, “Is it too soon to think about the next class? The students made a very good impression today. ”

Not too soon at all, in fact, as King County Parks administration had a follow-up meeting with SEFS Director Tom DeLuca, Ettl and Churchill this past July, paving the way for another class in the spring of 2015.

Nice work!

Photos © Sam Israel/SEFS.


Winter SEFS Seminar Schedule Announced!

As soon as finals are done tomorrow, things are going to get eerily quiet around here for a couple weeks as folks scatter for the holiday break. But just about as soon as the calendar turns to 2014, we’ll start firing up the academic boilers once again, and that includes the return of the SEFS Seminar Series!

SEFS Seminar ScheduleFor the Winter Quarter, we’re moving the seminars back to Wednesdays, but the hour and place remain the same: 3:30-4:20 p.m. in Anderson 223. We’ll be hosting a casual reception after the first seminar of each month—January 8, February 5 and March 5—and all students, staff and faculty are welcome to attend.

We have a terrific line-up, starting on January 8 with Teodora Minkova from the Washington Department of Natural Resources, so mark your calendars and join us each Wednesday!

(Students: To receive course credit, you may enroll in ESRM 490F or SEFS 550C as a 2-credit course. Contact Michelle Trudeau or Amanda Davis with any questions.)

Week 1: January 8
Teodora Minkova, WA DNR: “Monitoring riparian and aquatic habitat in the Olympic Experimental State Forest—first results and research opportunities”

Week 2: January 15
Martin Nie, University of Montana: “Decision-making triggers, adaptive management, and natural resources law and planning”

Week 3: January 22
Bruce Lippke, SEFS: “Life-cycle analysis of green and conventional buildings”

Week 4: January 29
Steve Sillett, Humboldt State: “A tree-level approach to understanding growth potential of the six tallest species”

Week 5: February 5
Don McKenzie, U.S. Forest Service: “Climate change and wildfire: Why we need ecology”

Week 6: February 12           
Indroneil Ganguly, SEFS: “Modeling the role of carbon sequestration in Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA)”

Week 7: February 19
Marnie Route, University of North Texas: “The role of the plant microbiome in invasion ecology—a case study”

Week 8: February 26
Kathy Wolf, SEFS: “Ecosystem services in the city? The evidence for expanded definitions and values”

Week 9: March 5
Joe Mayo, Mahlum Architects: “Wood architecture: Innovation, technology and re-connecting with a culture of wood”

Week 10: March 12
Derek Churchill, SEFS: “Managing for resilience at multiple scales: applying landscape ecology principles to silviculture”

A Visit to Vashon Island with Professor Ford

A couple weeks ago, on the first Friday of November, a two-car caravan took off from the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences to catch an early-afternoon ferry out to Vashon Island. With nine graduate students in tow, Professor David Ford was leading the third field trip for his “Principles of Silviculture” course (ESRM 428).

Vashon Island

Professor Ford, leaning on his cane, touring the first of two forest sites on Vashon Island.

The first trip had taken the students to Pack Forest to see estate forestry, and the second involved an overnight on the Olympic Peninsula to explore wet forests and densely seeded, large-scale operations. For this third excursion, the class would be touring two examples of community forestry, where they’d find small plots, some only a few acres in size, individually owned and managed, and with varying objectives depending on the landowner. Their guide for both sites would be Derek Churchill, a former Ph.D. student at SEFS who now lives on Vashon Island and works as a private forestry consultant.

Vashon Island’s history makes it an especially fertile study site for forest management. At the beginning of the 1900s, old-growth forests of hemlock, firs and red cedars covered most of the island. Smaller trees, such as alder, found room in sunnier open areas along with huckleberries and other shrubs. By the 1920s, though, most of the island’s forests had been harvested and cleared. The story went that you could stand on a high point at one end of Vashon and see pretty much across the entire island—roughly 13 miles long and eight miles across at its widest point—unimpeded by any mature trees.

At the time, Vashon was home to a number of Japanese strawberry farms, but starting in the Great Depression, and then on a broader scale as part of Japanese internment during World War II, many of those farms were abandoned. Fields that had been planted and tended were suddenly left on their own. Into that vacuum, fast-seeding alder began taking hold and spreading across the island in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Vashon Island

Churchill, front left, lives on Vashon Island and works as a private forestry consultant.

Today, roughly 15,000 acres, or about 60 percent of Vashon, have returned to forest. A large portion of that regrowth has involved the rise of alder-dominated forests, which, rather surprisingly, can’t naturally regenerate without human interference—and that presents a tremendous opportunity to test management strategies.

In a more diverse forest, and without the unnatural boundaries of neighborhoods and other development, the ecosystem would likely replenish itself. Yet the sudden abandonment of so much cleared land gave alder, once marginalized, an unusual advantage because they seed and grow quickly. They also tend to promote a thick, tangled understory, which largely prevents new trees from taking root. So as the alder age—often beginning their decline after 60 to 70 years—there aren’t new young trees sprouting to take their place.

In turn, if a landowner did nothing to intervene in an alder-dominated forest, eventually the older trees would die and disappear, and, many years later, they’d be left with an overgrown field—but no forest.

That’s where Churchill gets involved. In his role as a forestry consultant, he advises various landowners about how to manage their forest plots, writing prescriptions for long-term planning and timber harvests. His clients have wide-ranging visions for their land, so each prescription is unique to the landowner. One might care most about wildlife viewing, horse trails or general enjoyment of nature. Some might want minimal thinning, maybe 20-30 percent; others are more aggressive and want a higher percentage of aging trees cleared.

Vashon Island

The class tours the second forest site, where taller Douglas-fir are outcompeting Pacific madrone, resulting in some dangerously spindly, leaning and unstable trees.

In most cases, profit is not the primary objective of these harvests. More important for Churchill and the landowner is keeping the forest healthy and sustainable without overly affecting the aesthetic enjoyment of the land. If there’s a harvest here and there to make a little money, that ends up being a nice perk—and these trees definitely have market value. For a long time alder was considered a junk wood, but in the 1990s it started becoming prized for furniture (a single tree, with the right dimensions and age, could be worth more than $1,000).

As Churchill’s work has gained attention and traction around the island, more residents have recognized the importance of actively managing their forests. In fact, to handle an increasing project load more efficiently and sustainably, several years ago Churchill helped found the Vashon Forest Stewards, a nonprofit community forestry business whose mission is to “restore, enhance and maintain healthy native forest ecosystems, and to manage a sustainable ecological business that provides forestry services and island-grown wood products.” The stewards established a local mill, and they also offer educational workshops on forest planning and management, forest ecology and sustainable forestry techniques.

Showing students some of Churchill’s operation and projects, says Professor Ford, is a great way to introduce them to the viability of smaller-scale forestry. With his clients on Vashon, as well as in Seattle and surrounding communities, Churchill isn’t banking on huge harvests for an income. For him, the forests come in smaller patches and plots, and the work is more incremental and less predictable—but it is certainly viable, and plenty creative!

Check out the slideshow below to see more from their trip to Vashon.

Photos © Karl Wirsing/SEFS.