OF THE MIND
TECH INSTRUMENT CENTER
TO BLACK MOUNTAIN
MAY UNLOCK MAD COW DISEASE
SPEECH WASN'T FREE
TO BLACK MOUNTAIN
During the hot, dry summer of 2003, lightning sparked a small blaze on the north side of Black Mountain's O'Brien Creek. Wildfires were rampant in western Montana, and firefighters already had their hands full elsewhere.
But then, on Saturday, Aug. 16, winds unexpectedly kicked the Black Mountain Fire into high gear. In one afternoon, the fire grew from 1,450 acres to 7,316, spreading to nearby Blue Mountain. The flames, some 300 feet tall, menaced more than 650 homes nestled among the wooded ridgelines, slopes and draws overlooking Missoula.
When the firestorm calmed a day later, two homes had been destroyed, but all of the area's residents and firefighters lived to tell the tale. Missoulians suffered through a thick haze of smoke for several weeks until firefighting efforts and September rains finally extinguished the fires.
Those of us raised on Smokey the Bear posters and Disney movies might expect Black Mountain to be a lifeless wasteland for years to come. We'd be wrong.
In May, the Montana Natural History Center, in affiliation with UM, led a field trip to Black Mountain to study the fire's aftereffects. Twenty participants gathered at Fort Missoula for the Saturday morning event, one of the center's Discovery Days.
"What we want to do is go
up to the burn and look at the ecological benefits that counterbalance
the negative effects, like not being able to breathe," says
Sue Reel, a wildlife educator with the Lolo National Forest. Reel led the tour
Hutto elicits laughs from the group when he says, "We tend to think things were perfect when we were born, and they should stay that way.
"The world is dynamic, and we tend to want it static," he continues. "But animals and plants have evolved not just to deal with these things, but to depend on them."
Shooting stars. Glacier lily. Calypso orchid.
At the trailhead, Hutto passes around a "tree cookie" — a round log slice whose rings are interrupted by an old burn scar — and tells us such cookies reveal that historically, fires burned Montana forests an average of every 12 years. Decades of fire suppression have resulted in a thick build-up of undergrowth, which, when combined with drought conditions, can lead to the sort of inferno that raged over Black Mountain.
But even burned, Black Mountain is hardly black. Despite charred trees and the emptied forest floor, everywhere green shoots burst through ashen soil. Birdsong fills the air and sunshine dapples through the un-burned forest canopy. Clusters of purpleand yellow wildflowers dot the sides of the trail.
is life out here," says Hutto, an
ornithologist who directs UM's new Avian Science Center. "This
is not a
Pine siskin. Yellow rump. Hammond’s flycatcher.
Indeed, Hutto and Reel busily point out living things to the group.
"There's a whole suite of species that depend on fire," Reel says. "For example, the fire morel, which is the mushroom that everyone loves."
Indeed, in early summer the Missoula Farmer's Market boasts a bumper crop of morels, whose spores are spread by fire. Residents feast on the earthy mushrooms sauteed in butter and garlic, and pickers profit from selling them to upscale, out-of-state restaurants and markets.
Reel gives another example: “The black-backed woodpecker, which camouflages against burned trees and eats the beetles in the trees. It's dependent on fires, so if we didn't have them, we wouldn't have the black-backed woodpecker."
Hutto excitedly agrees. "Most of these birds have just come back from Mexico," he says. "They see this, and they're thinking, "Wow, this is awesome. I'm going to have more food."
Reel, the voice of reason, says, "I don't think they think that, honey."
Hutto's enthusiasm has earned him a reputation. Later our group steps aside on the trail for a pair of passing hikers. One of the hikers turns to his companion and says, "That was the bird man."
Robin. Solitary vireo.
Members of the group — many of them avid birdwatchers with binoculars slung around their necks — thrill to see a pair of three-toed woodpeckers digging a nest in a burned tree.
When a mountain bluebird flits by and lands on a nearby branch for a moment, the group erupts in cooing sounds.
"That was worth the whole morning, to see that bluebird," says a silver-haired woman in blue fleece.
At UM, Hutto has joined together with six other faculty members to form the Avian Science Center, which is devoted to bird research, monitoring and education. The center has a twofold mission: service-oriented research and monitoring for institutions, and transfer of education to K-12 schools, politicians, industry and nonprofits.
Birdwatching, Hutto explains, is not just a hobby. There's money to be made by competent birdwatchers. Many organizations monitor bird species to determine the biological effects of various environmental impacts.
"Birds are a fantastic indicator species," he says.
The strangest sights on Black Mountain are the pits and tunnels left where tree stumps and roots burned away, leaving oddly shaped empty spaces in the soil. Another aberrance is the green seam of trees that runs downhill between two blackened slopes. Slopes, our leaders explain, are more prone to burning.
Even trees can benefit from fire, Hutto and Reel tell us. "Lodgepole pine depends on fire to break open its cones and spread seeds," Hutto says. "And the more we look at larch, the more we realize it's a tree that thrives in a fire environment."
Reel adds, "Without fire, we have had less larch. They need a lot of sunlight to do well."
Downstream, where nutrient-laden runoff pulses through watersheds, cottonwood trees and other riparian flora also benefit from burns. "Cottonwood depends on flooding and scouring," Reel says. "We tend to think of runoff as bad, but it has positive effects as well."
Serviceberry. Ninebark. Oregon grape.
Inevitably, the controversial subject of logging in burned forests comes up.
"There aren't many species that are more abundant in logged areas," Hutto says. "The value of taking burned trees out is economic. I don't know of any ecological benefits.
"We don't know the implications of taking them out," he adds. "We don't have any studies."
Karen Short — whose doctoral thesis focused on the effects of fire on plants, insects and birds — discusses the beetles whose presence in burned trees are freqently cited by salvage logging proponents.
"Some beetles do not attack green trees," she says. "The big beetles come into trees that are already stressed. Others, the little bark beetles, do attack live trees. So these beetle issues are not cut and dried."
On the positive side, she says, beetles provide food for woodpeckers and facilitate the turnover of nutrients.
"Fire is just a rapid decay process," Short says. "It does the same thing as composting but very, very fast. There are a lot of critters that make a living off dead and dying stuff."
So, while Black Mountain may never be the same after the fire of 2003, that's not necessarily a bad thing.