In British Columbia, a province among several in western Canada that are both accustomed to, and plagued by, annual wildfires, rising temperatures from climate change are priming forests for catastrophic fire events. Wildfire is shaping a future for this part of the world that we cannot adequately predict, and while forests typically recover from fire under the right conditions, the boundaries of those suitable places are shifting. In this essay, ecologist Jonathan Van Elslander looks to the far end of wildfire cataclysm, and how sometimes, the forests don’t grow back. Something else takes their place. (AA)
Higher up in the hills there is another flash of green, a lighter shade. In a shallow draw, above a certain elevation, a triangle of regenerating lodgepole pine starts in the canyon and slopes slowly up and towards the hills’ inflections. As you go up, through trees now nearly 20 years old, it resembles a plantation. The trees, taller than me, grow densely. Five metres in, you can no longer see out. The grumpy old forester I might have been walks through and prescribes nothing. As is said in the forest industry, this patch is ‘free to grow’. One day it will make a wonderful cutblock.
The researcher I am walks along and dreams of questions. There’s some answer to the success of this patch. Better seed stock maybe? Stronger seedlings from stronger trees? But strong trees are everywhere. Instead, I think, up on that hill there is a semblance of a world lost. Up a little higher, it is a little colder and a little wetter. It seems that the draw captures the moisture the bordering barrens no longer can hold. And because of that, a forest may return. Elsewhere on the landscape there are spots where forests fight to remain, or to come back. There are a few, like this one, where they’re winning the fight. But there are many more where they are losing. Have lost.
I grew up in the flatlands, where forests are groves, not landscapes. I didn’t love those places then… or really know much about them at all. The kid I was had no time for green things and long walks. Now, by instinct, my heart tries to make that lost time up. In between, I’d learned of forests and sought them out.
They have become a part of myself: my calmest mind walks through coastal western red cedar and bigleaf maple. My fondest memories fall on a backdrop of Bryoria and Usnea, hanging limp over Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. I’ve saved, destroyed, lost, and mourned more dry-country Douglas firs than I have people. But strangely – even though gaps of my brain in time fill with trees – as I age my thoughts of place are thoughts of open space. My dreams are full of empty lands and endless skies. The further I get from my beginnings in open country, the more enamoured I am with grasslands. A lot of things make grasslands. When I return to the prairies and roam, I am taken with the absences, the hallmarks of grasslands gone by. Swift foxes are replaced with farm dogs. Sprague’s pipits overwhelmed by Shakespeare’s starlings. Instead of wide-roaming bison, the land is identified by attempted genocide. What had defined the balance of life in midwestern grasslands for millennia has been beaten into submission by combines, railways and institutionalised theft. But in the west, what makes grasslands has not dwindled. It rises enraged every summer and does so with more ferocity in every passing year. Here, the difference has always been fire. The regularity of it, driven by heat in the valleys, and by drought in the mountains’ shadow.
I’ve saved, destroyed, lost, and mourned more dry-country Douglas firs than I have people. But strangely – even though gaps of my brain in time fill with trees – as I age my thoughts of place are thoughts of open space.
Over the years, the treelines of western North America, the soft boundary between forest and grassland, have crept outwards. They move at timescales we can barely perceive, but they move nonetheless. In the last centuries, while grasslands in the west have suffered from poor ranching practices and trifling landscape management, they have also faced the expansion of the treeline. In response to the banning of Indigenous burning, along with other forms of militarised fire suppression, forests of the drier country have become denser and less variable, while their outer rim has expanded down into valleys that were once open grassland.
Though there has continued to be heat and drought in the last 150 years, there has been a change to the fire paradigm. Prior to colonisation, for thousands of years, Indigenous people had fostered an equilibrium between grasslands and forests, mediated by fire. With these cultural burning practices they kept forests healthy and the treeline at bay, creating robust habitats on either side. But the industrial vision of North America stopped the burning and the balance was upset. Logging, first with axes, then with chainsaws and feller-bunchers, replaced fire as the predominant disturbance to the old forests of the mountainous west.
Instead of the mediated variability of fire – the sprawling forest habitat for deer, bears, grass and people, demarcated by regularly rejuvenated understories and towering veteran trees scorched only at their base – these forests are now simultaneously micromanaged and forgotten by the wide reach of the mills. Variable and fascinating understories of tree regeneration and open grassy spaces have been replaced with dense single species plantations. The veteran trees are seen as having a need to be felled. If not for their enormous wood volumes, they must be taken in order to remove the shade they provide saplings. After the veterans are gone, these young trees are condemned to grow in lockstep with a thousand others for an unforgiving century. What was once a third of a continent defined by variability, of gradients of old and young and of big and small, has become landscapes of monotony: trees of the same age, same species, same size.
And all this has created our new paradigm: with fire suppression, and with the mismanagement of forest structure through poor landscape planning and an industrial reliance on homogeneity, we no longer have trailing and friendly fires of the understory. Once, many of the fires of these territories were brush fires, small ones that cleared overly dense understories and encouraged biodiversity. Now, forests burn all together at once, hotter with each passing year. They burn like we see on television: violent stampedes of flame. And with climate change – through its longer, hotter, and drier summers – our forests burn more, and more often, than we have the capability to manage.
Some people grow up with forests. Some choose them. I came to forests as I came of age. Since then, I have given them much of myself. Or lost parts of myself. Lost dead weight to time spent wandering, lost loves and friends to changing towns and careers in the name of trees. Growing pains have shed away at random as I walk under canopies like last year’s antlers. Old troubles have been chopped away with cut blazes, obscured as I identified mosses, buried in soil pits. But in leaving those parts of myself, in tamping down the earth upon the holes I left them in, I was under some personal accord that they would live forever under trees. I believed that those pieces I had given would act as fertiliser for forests indefinitely. But now I must accept that, all across the west, some of those monuments will not remain forests. Fire will come and seedlings will not, and what will be left will be bunchgrass and sagebrush and hidden marks of my memories.
With climate change, ecologists are seeing changes not just to the frequency, the intensity, and the behaviour of fires, but to the end of a burn as well. Change to what comes after a fire. In the years following a forest fire, from Mexico to British Columbia, what was once forest fails to grow back. Like on the hill above my home, the trees go, and they don’t return. And in reply, everyone in the woods has something to say. The foresters I’ve known – reserved, terse individuals – lament their failing returns: more fire is less wood volume to be milled. They worry about soil damage and lose sleep over burnt plantations that will never be ‘free to grow’. Without adequate forest regeneration, especially in the years soon after a fire, the landscape becomes susceptible to soil erosion and to ecosystem change, shifting from forests to grasslands. In response, the governments of the day and the forest industry band together to plant trees heavily through burnt lands, in the hopes that they can bring back what they had before: homogenous, predictable forests. Bountiful forests of harvestable timber.
Conversely, wildlife biologists wonder in secret if we are wasting our money on forest rehabilitation. It’s not uncommon to hear one say something like, ‘let the grasslands come’. With colonialism’s conversion of the west from a land of fire to a land of logging, the outer boundary of the continental forest has expanded. While a small list of corporations damaged the health of forests, the treeline moved down, picking away at grasslands. And so, we lost enough open country in the last century to ruin the old equilibrium. But the wildlife types postulate a change in tactics. Maybe let fire and the creatures of sprawling fields, elk and badgers and snakes, roam north and clamber uphill – the directions that climate change now forces those boundaries. If forests are not to regrow on their own,
instead let us nurture the healthy habitats we can.
In the middle of such an argument come forest ecologists. Generally concerned with the big picture, but they have a soft spot for dense forests, and for goshawks, fishers, and the creatures that rely entirely on the woods. It can be said that healthy forests are in short supply in this country, and maybe working for them, and for their carbon sequestration, water filtration, and wide range of habitats they provide, is worth the fight. Foresters, who despite their professional obligations are forest lovers at heart, agree easily with that. But ecologists also think deeply about where an equilibrium may be achieved again. They are sensitive to the ecological reality of forests: fluid structures made up of a diverse set of actors. They are sensitive to nature’s fluctuations, movements that occur at an incredible range of scales in both time and space. And they feel sympathy for the open country creatures as well. Maybe, rather than letting every fire burn freely or replanting every lost tree, there is a line to be drawn in between.
Maybe, rather than letting every fire burn freely or replanting every lost tree, there is a line to be drawn in between.
It can also be said that over time we have tampered too much with forests and grasslands; in light of climate change’s new pressure on the equilibrium, we are now beholden to a moral responsibility to manage it. The health of both is much poorer now than prior to colonisation. While forests have suffered to monotony, grasslands have become overrun with invasive species and fallen prey to the interests of corporate ranching. Not to mention, it’s hotter and drier than it was: while in British Columbia we see forests turn to grasslands, to the south there are grasslands turning to desert. And so, the great disturbance we now face hinges on us. Many of the hottest fires are our fault. Because of climate change, but not that alone; the hottest fires burn through our poorly managed forests, the relics of insect outbreaks and invasive species and even aged pine plantations, through stands dense from fire suppression and thoughtless logging. Our failings accelerate the burn. And for that, we owe the land thoughtful management,
Everyone has a limit. We can only give so much to our passions. When I was in college, I went to protests and wrote angry letters and signed petitions. Then I moved away and worked for The Man and cut down a tree or two in order to foster my own plans for personal growth, plans to one day ‘make a difference’. And I learned a lot working in the woods for the mill: an extensive list of species’ names, an ability to guess a tree’s height and diameter from afar, exactly how the afternoon light comes through the needles of each canopy species of that land. And I learned to never tell a forester or a forest technician they don’t care about the woods. They do that job, spending three-hundred days a year walking in the woods, first and foremost because it is the only job that lets them be out there every day. They love the woods more than many can imagine. And they put up with a lot of pain in the name of time spent where they want to be.
Like them, we must make trade-offs between being where we want to be and standing for what we believe in. Through all that time, my energy for fighting for the woods has fluctuated. There are times when it burns in me hot, when I rage against the world and a system that doesn’t value our forests the way it should. But there are times when my fire is wanting for fuel, when a news story of a destructive change in logging regulations sends me not into a rage of activism but into dejection, remedied only by a long, slow, walk in a forest. And there are times, even gloomier still, when I lay down in the moss and think let those bad actors come. Let them trample these forests until one day they trample me.
Jonathan Van Elslander
Elephant Hill Fire, Pressy Lake, Secwépemc Territory
35mm film photograph
The remains of a cow in their final resting place, surrounded by nearly 10,000 hectares of high-severity burnt forest, near Pressy Lake, British Columbia. Hundreds of cattle and dozens of homes and cottages were lost in the area inn the Elephant Hill Wildfire in August 2017
Pencil, burned paper and digital collage
Cool burning is a practice of care/cultivation of land once practised widely by many First Nations of Australia. It was also widely practised on Turtle Island before prohibition by European colonisers. With climate change and increasingly devastating wldfires, ancient indigenous land practices will hopefully brought to the forefront.
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