How Forests Thrive After Fires and Volcanoes

Forests hammered by windstorms, avalanches and wildfires may appear blighted, but a Washington State University researcher says such disturbances can be key to maximizing an area's biological diversity.

In fact, says Mark Swanson, land managers can alter their practices to enhance such diversity, creating areas with a wide variety of species, including rare and endangered plants and animals.
 
"The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, for example, has created very diverse post-eruption conditions, and has some of the highest plant and animal diversity in the western Cascades range," says Mark Swanson, an assistant professor of landscape ecology and silviculture in Washington State University's School of the Environment.
 
Swanson, who has studied disturbed areas on Mount St. Helens and around western North America, presents his findings this week at the national convention of the Ecological Society of America in Portland.
 
His findings run counter to a widely held perception that most, if not all rare species tend to require older forests, not younger. In fact, he says, a substantial proportion of Washington's state-protected forest plants and animals spend some or all of their life cycle in areas rebounding from a major disturbance. That's because such habitats often include woody debris and snags, varied landscape patterns, and a rich diversity of plants that can be exploited for food and shelter.
 
"Severe fire in the northern Rockies creates conditions for some rare birds that depend on abundant dead trees, like the black-backed woodpecker," says Swanson. "It can benefit a host of other organisms, too, like elk, deer, bighorn sheep, some frog species, and many more."
 
Forest disturbances can be natural events, says Swanson, but they can also be the product of carefully designed forest harvests. In either case, he says, forest managers can help maximize biological diversity with practices that extend the time it takes the forest to return to a climax state with a closed canopy.
 
Clearcutting often leaves too little behind to provide habitat for a diversity of species, Swanson says. Also, clearcut areas are often reforested too quickly to allow open conditions and a diverse herb and shrub community to persist. By the same token, post-disturbance logging can hurt diversity by removing structures favored by plants and animals.
 
However, where maintaining biodiversity is an objective, like on federal lands, timber harvests can be designed to mimic natural disturbance and create habitat for some species that depend on a forest's recovery, or succession, says Swanson. Afterwards, he says, managers should avoid dense "recovery" plantings that can so shorten a forest's succession that they give short shrift to the ecological role its early stages.

Download Center

  • Monitoring and Reporting on Air Emissions for Regulators and the Real World

    When it comes to managing compliance and regulatory issues surrounding air emissions, there are no easy jobs. With interviews from practitioners from American Electric Power, Red Cedar Gathering, Trinity Consultants, and Cority, this eBook provides practical advice to advance your air emissions monitoring and reporting programs.

  • What Every EHS Professional Should Know About ESG

    Join experts from Arcadis and Cority on April 27th to learn the most common ESG reporting frameworks and how technology can help you improve reporting efficiency, identify areas for improvement, and create defensible audit trails.

  • Green Quadrant EHS Software 2021

    Read the new report by independent analyst firm, Verdantix, to get an unbiased comparison of the 22 most prominent EHS software vendors in the industry.

  • RFP Template for Waste Management Software

    Learn the essential questions to ask when evaluating waste management software solutions with this free, ready-to-use RFP template

  • 5 Keys to Best-in-Class Chemical Management

    Running a safe chemical program is challenging and complex: from knowing what's on-site to proper handling and disposal - all while navigating regulatory changes. Learn the best ways to mitigate chemical risk, get the most value out of your data, and gain buy-in for a chemical management solution.

Featured Webinar