Fire

Boise Interagency Fire Center entrance sign. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
Boise Interagency Fire Center entrance sign. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
The haze above Cache Valley begins to dissipate after weeks of hovering low and thick like a winter inversion, even as the Goring and Hansel Point Fires rage on just west of the Wellsville Mountains that bookend the valley. Both blazes, just two of the more than ten active fires in the state, are still less than 50% contained. Farmers and ranchers in Box Elder County are now doubling as volunteer fire crews.

To date, the National Interagency Fire Center has reported over 5.1 million acres burned in nearly 39,000 individual fires throughout the Western US and small pockets farther east. According to the agency’s website, “more than 28,000 firefighters and support personnel are [currently] working on 100 large fires that have burned 1.6 million acres.” And so goes another fire season.

Night view of burning pine trees and power pole. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
Night view of burning pine trees and power pole. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
It’s a hard thing to play spectator to—these yearly displays of destruction. It’s an even harder thing to draw a silver lining around, considering the potential for loss of land, property, and sometimes even life that each new fire season brings; but that’s what I’ll try to do here. As part of a recent Utah Master Naturalist course in which I participated with USU’s Extension Office, I was reminded of the extreme import of fire here in the West.
Ecological processes are complex and dynamic; and, here in the West, fire is a critical piece to that constantly morphing puzzle. Let’s consider a mature forest, for instance. Here in Utah, one might consist of large, shade tolerant spruce and fir groves. Free of any human intervention, these groves would occasionally succumb to wildfires which would act as cleaning crew for the collection of understory growth and dead plant material that litters the forest floor.

Such phenomena accomplish two tasks: one, frequent fires reboot the process of ecological succession wherein grasses, shrubs, and early succession species such as aspen trees and lodgepole pines take up the yolk of repopulating the forest; this leads to the second achievement of regular, unsuppressed wildfires—forest health. A dynamic, changing forest full of actively diversifying plant species are less susceptible to pests and disease. Wildfires mean forest longevity. Moreover, frequent fires limit understory fuels and produce low-intensity burns that are less likely to completely destroy a forest.

In the late 19th/early 20th century, though, this was a hard pill to swallow, and understandably so. Fire, as I said earlier, can be a threat to land, property, and life. Thus, we inherited a policy of fire suppression throughout the Western United States which, though it may sound fruitful, has accomplished quite the opposite of our intentions. Fire suppression allows understory ladder fuels to accumulate in quantities that, when finally ignite, produce high-intensity blazes that are consummate in both their size and scope; they burn quickly and exhaustively. This presents problems on its own, but climate change also promises to lengthen our fire season by as many as three months in some areas of the West.

So what does that mean for those of us who make our home in the Western states? Well, first we must remind ourselves each season that fire is indeed part of the ecology of the place we call home, and with that in mind take steps to insulate ourselves from its most dangerous characteristics. This includes creating and respecting buffer zones between human settlements and forests that are particularly susceptible to wildfires. Californians know this all too well by now. Additionally, responsible behavior when playing in or travelling through the Western wildlands goes a long way to preventing wildfires. Being aware of fire bans and mediation efforts is the best way to meet Smokey’s expectations.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US National Park Service
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Utah Fire Info Box

Williams, Carter, Update on Fires in Utah, KSL.com, Jun 25th, 2018, https://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=46349568

Wild Neoteny

Annual Wildflower Festival Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Annual Wildflower Festival
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
“Hey, stop the truck!” my wife called from the passenger seat, her nose pressed against the window. I already knew what this was about; she was out the door before the dust had cleared the hood, kneeling in the grass. While she hovered over something newly found with purple petals, I stared out across the high, open meadow of blooming wildflowers, the urge to run surging into my feet. I turned at her exclamation several seconds later, half a football field of colored space between us now. Arms spread wide; grins from ear to ear. In a field of wildflowers, we were kids again.

Scientists call it neoteny, the retention of juvenile features in the adult of a species—basically, the harboring of a playful nature into adulthood. The research into the benefits of play, especially outdoor play, is becoming more replete by the day. In humans, play puts the right hemisphere of the brain into gear, that portion responsible for artistic and creative notions, imagination and insight, and holistic thought. The cerebellum and frontal lobes light up as well, increasing attunement to coordination, executive functioning, and contextual memory development. Neoteny, scientists say, is the key to a species’ adaptability and, therefore, its survival.

Alpine Pond Upper Flowers Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Alpine Pond Upper Flowers
Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Wild neoteny could be the term used to describe the human affinity to explore one’s natural surroundings, to wander off into the hills in search of something new and interesting, to learn the nuance of a place and to gain some intimacy with it—to call it home. We do that, I think, when we go on hikes into the wild hinterlands, catapult ourselves down the turbulent waters of our rivers, or climb the rock faces we stumble upon. It’s an adrenaline rush to be sure, a high on life as they say; but it’s also an act of survival—and of remaining human.

Robin Moore, a professor at North Carolina State University, says “the natural environment is the principle source of sensory stimulation….” “Sensory experiences,” he says, “link [our] exterior world with [our] interior, hidden, affective world.” The outdoor environment is a medium of human connection where, as Moore puts it, the “freedom to explore and play…through the senses…is essential for healthy development….” Dr. Stuart Brown, clinical researcher and founder of The National Institute for Play, behooves us in his Ted Talk on the subject to explore our individual histories of play. If you close your eyes and imagine yourself at play, where are you? The open water, a deep forest, a mountain peak, or maybe a field of wildflowers?

In his national bestseller, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv calls nature a “reset button.” It is the place where we are reminded of ourselves and our purpose. Australian musician Xavier Rudd sings, “Take a stroll to the nearest water’s edge/Remember your place.” It’s often proffered that in a time of industrial expectation and hyper-communication, we need the wild spaces more than ever. There’s some truth to that; but I think I’d go play there anyway, even if it wasn’t to escape the, quote-unquote, “workaday life.” I’m most human when I’m running through a field of blooming wildflowers.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Cedar Breaks, Plan Your Visit, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/planyourvisit/event-listing.htm?eventID=68A2C9C9-155D-451F-679007F885E5FA1A

Cedar Breaks National Monument, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/index.htm

Neoteny, Reference Terms, ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/neoteny.htm

Knowing Trees

A Guide to the Trees of Utah and the Intermountain West Michael Kuhns, Author Utah State University Press Photo taken of personal copy by Ron Hellstern, Photographer Used with permission
A Guide to the Trees of Utah and the Intermountain West
Michael Kuhns, Author
Utah State University Press
Photo taken of personal copy by Ron Hellstern, Photographer
Used with permission
If you are fortunate to live, or even work, near trees enjoy the many benefits they provide. Perhaps you learned something about them in a biology class you took long ago. But do you know what kind of trees you are looking at now? Consider a few basic elementary tips to help you identify what you are observing. And please understand this will be a generalization.

There are 865 tree species in North America. Your best bet to identify them is to get a Western or Utah Field Guide that includes a dichotomous key, which simply means you are given two choices of characteristics to begin your identification process. Once you make a choice, two more characteristics are presented and you continue making choices until you can identify the tree you are observing. Today, I’ll concentrate on the native and naturalized trees of Utah.

Let’s start with Utah Conifers, the gymnosperm trees that bear cones. Inspecting the needles will help you “at least” identify the genus to which they belong. Remember the first letter of Firs, Spruce and Pines to provide a hint to their species:

FIRS have flat and friendly needles to the touch. Common Utah firs include White, Subalpine, and Douglas Fir (which really isn’t a fir, but can be recognized by its cone which looks like little tails on the bracts extending out from under the cone scales.

SPRUCE trees have sharp and square needles. Trying to shake hands with a spruce can be painful, but their individual needles can be rolled between your thumb and finger. Utah has the Blue and Engelmann Spruce.

PINES have packets of two or more needles bundled together as they grow out of the twig. Common pines in Utah include the Bristlecone, Limber, Lodgepole, Pinyon, and Ponderosa.

JUNIPERS have scaley, twiggy leaves and grow in the rocky soils and dry plains and hills where we have either Utah Juniper or Rocky Mountain Juniper. They are quite similar but Utah Junipers have gray bark and yellow-green needles. The Rocky Mountain trees have reddish-brown bark and gray-green needles.

Broadleaf Trees are a little trickier. This is where your dichotomous key and field guide can really help. Once again, I’ll only concentrate on generalities.

MAPLES are palmately lobed, meaning they have leaves that are shaped like hands with very pointy fingers. Look for Rocky Mountain Maple, Bigtooth Maple and Box Elder.

OAKS have leaves that look like rounded lobes all along their edges. Some people say they remind them of feathers.

Here are a few of many qualities of leaves to consider:
Leaf shape – Are they oval, linear, oblong or another shape?
Do they grow opposite or alternate on branches?
Are there single or compound leaves?
Are the margins smooth, serrated like a steak knife, or have another edge?

Remember, you might be looking at a tree from another country sold at a retail nursery store.

Pando, the worlds largest known organism at Fishlake in central Utah Image courtesy USDA Forest Service J Zapell, Photographer
Pando, the worlds largest known organism at Fishlake in central Utah
Image courtesy USDA Forest Service
J Zapell, Photographer
In closing, I’ll remind Utahns that the Quaking Aspen was designated as our State Tree in 2014. To its credit, the largest aspen colony, named Pando the Trembling Giant, is in Utah near Fishlake and is a single collection of more than 70,000 trunks connected to a single root system.

That is another reason I am Wild About Utah. This is Ron Hellstern.
 
Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Utah State University Press an imprint of University Press of Colorado
Photo of personal copy of the book taken by Ron Hellstern
Image: Pando Aspen Colony, Courtesy USDA Forest Service, J Zapell, Photographer
Text: Ron Hellstern, Cache Valley Wildlife Association

Additional Reading

Kuhns, Michael, https://upcolorado.com/utah-state-university-press/item/2130-a-guide-to-the-trees-of-utah-and-the-intermountain-west

Little, Elbert L, National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees–W: Western Region, Chanticleer Press https://www.amazon.com/National-Audubon-Society-American-Trees-W/dp/0394507614 alternatively https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/119974/national-audubon-society-field-guide-to-north-american-trees–w-by-national-audubon-society/

Watts, Tom & Bridget, Rocky Mountain Tree Finder, Nature Study Guild, Menasha Ridge Press, Birmingham, AL https://www.amazon.com/Rocky-Mountain-Tree-Finder-Watts/dp/0912550295 alternatively
https://www.menasharidge.com/product.php?productid=17125

What Tree Is That, A Guide to More Common Trees Found in North America, The Arbor Day Foundation, Nebraska City, NE, https://www.amazon.com/What-Tree-That-America-Recipient/dp/0963465759 alternatively https://www.arborday.org/trees/whattree/whatTree.cfm?ItemID=E6A

Tree Identification Index, USU Extension Forestry, https://forestry.usu.edu/tree-identification/index

Kuhns, Michael, Rupp, Lawrence, Selecting and Planting Landscape Trees, USU Extension Forestry, https://forestry.usu.edu/files-ou/selecting-planting-trees.pdf

Key To The Trees Of Logan Canyon, USU Extension Forestry, https://forestry.usu.edu/tree-identification/keys-to-trees-of-logan/keys-to-trees-of-logan-canyon

Riparian Zones

Riparian Zones: Clear Creek in the Spring Courtesy & Copyright Holly Strand, Photographer
Clear Creek in the Spring
Courtesy & Copyright Holly Strand, Photographer
Summer’s heat has turned on. It was evident in a dramatic fashion as I ran a ridge in N. Utah where the early am temps were near 70 degrees, flowers had faded, and the absence of bird song. As I descended to the canyon bottom the temperature dropped a solid 20 degrees and bird voices returned where yellow warblers were competing with lazuli buntings for top songster. I had entered the riparian, or river side biotic community- from the burnt brown of cheat grass above to the lush “green zone” below supporting abundant life in our desert state. I won’t be running ridge tops any time soon!

Throughout the Intermountain West and Great Basin, these givers of life are critical areas for water, wildlife, agriculture, and recreation. About 80 % of all animal life is dependent on stream side habit sometime during its life cycle. As a birder and botanist, this is where I spend much of my time documenting and enjoying the abundance.
On a recent, brief bird survey along the Logan River golf course trail, I recorded 33 species with another ten or so known to nest in this river corridor. I’m planning to prepare a bird checklist for golfers to add more “birdies” to their score card.

Many of these special places have been seriously degraded through invasion of exotic species, agricultural practices, various forms of development, and channelization. But help is on the way.

The Logan River Task Force is one excellent example. Launched in 2016, the task force is well on its way to restoring a much healthier, biologically rich river system. Replacing crack willow, a Eurasian non-native tree, with native cottonwood and willow accompanied by a rich understory of shrubs, will significantly enhance the biodiversity along the floodplain. Another major change is underway as they replace the straight, channelized portion of the river to its meandering original channel. This will create more pools for fish, wetlands for flood control and filtering, while improving aesthetics and recreation opportunity.

In an earlier WAU reading, I mentioned the good work being done by western boxelder ranchers reintroducing beaver whose dams will assist with maintaining stream flow and water quality along with improved fish and wildlife habitat. I’m aware of the same occurring on a Mink Creek ranch in SE Idaho.

The world appears to be awakening to the many values of these critical wildlife and water quality riparian zones, as I awoke to the same on my early morning run.

This is Jack Greene and I’m Wild about Utah!!

Credits:

Images: Holly Strand
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Wheaton, Joe, Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://etalweb.joewheaton.org.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/Downloads/BRAT/UTAH_BRAT_Management%20Brief.pdf

Riparian Zones, What is a Riparian Zone?, Water Quality, USU Extension, https://extension.usu.edu/waterquality/learnaboutsurfacewater/watersheds/riversandstreams/riparianzones