Montana forestry expert talks about wildfires and human management

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Dr Peter Kolb appears on KGVO’s Talk Back once a month and is also the voice of our journal Forestry Minutes.

Kolb is the Montana State University Forest Extension Specialist and Associate Professor of Forest Ecology and Management, housed at the University of Montana in the Department of Forest Management.

Forest fires and their impact on the conservation of Western landscapes as well as on communities is a very controversial topic. Some special interest groups believe that what forest fires do is a natural process and that we need to let more forest fires burn in forest landscapes. Others see forest fires as a significant threat to forests and human infrastructure.

“As with most complex matters, simplifying it in order to create a narrative to support your position is a common tactic in today’s political world,” Kolb said. “As a forest scientist working for MSU Extension, my personal and professional goals are to help society understand forest ecology and the role of management.”

Kolb said this series of images is released to demonstrate the complex interplay between natural processes such as wildfires and human management.

“Both have their good qualities and their bad qualities,” Kolb said. “By using both appropriately, we can advance our goals of conserving nature and natural processes, while also meeting human needs which include natural places to recreate as well as the harvesting of timber that both provide a material and economic basis for our basic needs. Before we can improve our natural resource practices, we must fully understand how nature works and what might be the role of humans in nature. “

Photo Description:

The Big Belt Mountains form a high elevation ridge between Townsend and White Sulfur Springs and are surrounded by ranch land. Forests have seen minimal harvest in only a few areas, and much of it consists of relatively intact forests of now dead lodgepole pines and mixed-age Douglas firs at lower elevations. Subalpine fir and spruce are found at higher elevations.

Photo Description:

Natural forests developed after a great natural fire about 150 to 200 years ago. Growing a competition of trees that was too dense for water had helped the mountain pine beetle kill the majority of lodgepole pines, adding to the already high fuel load. Even though a thick winter snowpack had left most of the large fuels too wet to really burn, dry branches and twigs and an overly dense, drought-stressed forest allowed a wind-blown fire to blow into areas not disturbed with great intensity. Witnesses (and images if you google “Montana Woods Creek Fire”) indicated that a 300-foot-high wall of flames burned through the mountain range. Shown are identical scenes taken in September 2020 and after the fire in September 2021, showing the effects of the fire on the forest.

Photo Description:

An area of ​​the Big Belts near an access road had been clear-cut about 30 years ago. The harvest units had naturally regenerated with young lodgepole pines and some douglas and subalpine firs and can be seen as brighter green squares surrounded by a dense original forest of older dead lodgepole pines and douglas fir. and more mature subalpine firs. A year later, the identical scene shows the behavior of the fire and that the fire could not burn through the old harvesting units.

Young trees don’t use as much water and stay hydrated longer during the summer months. The high water content of the foliage makes them very resistant to burning, unlike older, denser forests which lack water in early summer and are then stressed by drought. The low moisture content of the foliage makes them very flammable. Why thinning forests and creating mosaics of harvesting units across forest landscapes makes it more resistant to forest fires. Not only do forest fires have a harder time burning the entire landscape as the fire has to burn around these more humid woodlands, but harvesting units that do not burn provide sources of seeds that can help recolonize the land. native vegetation in severely burnt areas.

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