Aspen Seedlings on the Brian Head Fire Footprint

Aspen Seedlings on the Brian Head Fire Footprint: A few remaining aspen trees standing after the Brian Head fire Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
A few remaining aspen trees standing after the Brian Head fire
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

The rustling noise of wind blowing through aspen trees is a sweet sound for many Utahns, reminding them of home.

The quaking aspen became Utah’s state tree in 2014.   It grows in all 29 counties and is recognized by its off-white bark with black spots and streaks. In the fall, aspen’s heart-shaped leaves turn bright yellow and make a vibrant splash of color against backdrops of green conifers and rocky ridges.

In addition to its aesthetic value, aspen helps to create habitat for wildlife, provide shelter for livestock, and increase bird and plant diversity. In a fire, aspen burns less readily than other trees, so aspen forests can help reduce fire risk.

Aspen suckers growing between fallen wood from the Brian Head fire Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Aspen suckers growing between fallen wood from the Brian Head fire
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

The aspens reproduce in two different ways.  The most common way is they make root sprouts called “suckers”, which are genetically identical to the root, and can lead to the formation of a group of identical trees called a “clone”. 

The second less common way is when aspen produce seeds, the seedlings have a mixture of genes from two parent trees.   Aspen do not produce seeds every year, and seedlings can have a hard time getting established in dry soils.

Aspen seedling from the Brian Head fire footprint. Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Aspen seedling from the Brian Head fire footprint. Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

Rumor has it an early USU Forestry professor offered an A to any student who could find an aspen seedling in the wild, making the point of how rare the seedlings were.   However, research at USU and elsewhere over the past decade is showing that aspen seedlings may be more common than we think, especially after fires. 

In the summer of 2017, the Brian Head fire burned over 70,000 acres in the high country of southern Utah.  Aspen is already playing a large role in the regeneration of this forest, producing a thicket of suckers under preexisting aspen

In July of this year, homeowners Mike and Julie Saemisch “Samish” in Brian Head, Utah were walking through some surviving aspens in the fire footprint,  when they noticed something unusual and surprising – these aspens were producing an extraordinary amount of seeds.

They brought this to the attention of USU Professors Larissa Yocom, a fire ecologist, and Karen Mock, an aspen geneticist, both in the Department of Wildland Resources, in the Quinney College of Natural Resources. 

Yocom said, “It looked like snow in July, there was so much aspen cotton draped over every surface.”

Mock visited the site in September to see whether these seeds were germinating.  She explains, “Seedlings were everywhere – thousands and thousands of them, including in places where aspen did not previously exist”. 

Aspen seedling growing on the Brian Head fire footprint. Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Aspen seedling growing on the Brian Head fire footprint.
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

According to Yocom, “Fire has created a window of opportunity [for aspen] by opening up growing space [and decreasing competition]. It removed trees, shrubs, and understory plants that compete with small aspen.  The [seedlings] have nutrients, water, sunlight, and open soil free from fallen leaves and vegetation.”

Aspen seedling growing near charred tree from the Brian Head fire Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Aspen seedling growing near charred tree from the Brian Head fire
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

Mock explains, “All the right ingredients came together for this to happen: fire, seed production, and good monsoon rain timing.  Events like this can present an opportunity for adaptive evolution, range expansion and range shifts in aspen, and those events can leave a mark for hundreds or thousands of years”.

Yocom adds, “A post-fire environment can be harsh with high temperatures at the soil surface and little shade.  But if the seedlings survive through their most vulnerable stage they can grow quickly and may establish dominance across a huge area in the Brian Head Fire footprint.”

Yocom and Mock hope to study the survival of these aspen over the coming years, to find out which aspens survive and how big of an impact herbivory has on the suckers and seedlings.  They hope that this research will help guide future post-fire management practices to encourage strong aspen regeneration after fires.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Karen Mock, Wildland Resources, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University, https://qcnr.usu.edu/directory/mock_karen
Audio: Courtesy Western Soundscape Archive, University of Utah, Sound provided by Jeff Rice, licensed under CCA-ND
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Brian Head Fire Rehabilitation Project, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=52918

Wildland Fire, Managing Land, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.fed.us/managing-land/fire

Donations, Working With Us, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.fed.us/working-with-us/donations

After the Fire, Pioneer Fire Reforestation on the Boise National Forest, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.fed.us/science-technology/fire/after-fire

Maffly, Brian, A year after southern Utah’s Brian Head Fire, the aspens are bouncing back in a surprising way that could strengthen the forest, The Salt Lake Tribune, Oct 22, 2018, https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2018/10/22/year-after-southern/

Exotic Invasive Species

Teaching About Invasive Species Used by permission, Tim Grant, author & publisher
Teaching About Invasive Species Used by permission, Tim Grant, author & publisher

Exotic invasive species. “Exotic”, sounds rather alluring, but “invasive” implies something completely different and undesirable.

Basically, we are referring to any species that is not native to that ecosystem, it can survive and reproduce there, and by its introduction can cause harm to the environment, the economy, wildlife, and human health. And this doesn’t mean just plants. There are also invasive animals and even microorganisms that can disrupt the balance that maintains natural ecosystems.

They usually have some means of dominance over native species, such as superior reproduction or faster growth success. They may also have unique forms of defense against native predators. Being newly introduced to an area, they may not even have any competition from similar species, or natural predators may not exist in their new area at all. Their advantages can outcompete native species at alarming rates and result in a reduction, or elimination, of biodiversity in huge areas. And research has proven that having a diversity of native life forms improves the health of ecosystems.

Organizations dealing with agriculture, forestry, fisheries, wildlife and waterways estimate that the annual costs to try to control invasive species in our country exceeds $120 billion dollars. And, whether you are a supporter of the Endangered Species Act or not, a quote from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service states “More than 400 of the over 1,300 species currently protected under the Endangered Species Act,…..are considered to be at risk at least partly due to displacement by, competition with, and predation by invasive species.”

In Utah, there are 596 invasive plant species, 28 invasive insects, and a few mammals too. I’ll simply mention a few and why they are so problematic: In the water we are plagued with Quagga and Zebra Mussels, Carp , and plants like Purple Loosestrife. One adult Zebra Mussel can produce one million larvae that mature in one year.

Africanized Honeybees have been sneaking into our State, and they can be very aggressive.
Some of the more common invasive plants include: Russian Olive, Field bindweed, Dyer’s Woad, Russian and Canada thistle, Stinging Nettle, Tamarisk, …..even Kentucky Bluegrass is on the list. The yellow Dyer’s Woad plant that covers many of our hillside grazing lands, is prolific and may produce 10,000 seeds per plant

The European Starling and English House Sparrow are two birds that don’t belong here, but have been extremely successful by inhabiting all 50 States and occupy nesting sites and deplete food sources of our native American songbirds.

Mammals include the Red Fox, Muskrat, White-tailed Deer (which might excite some hunters), and the adorable Raccoon which may be one of the best examples of the problems invasive species can cause. Raccoons can damage homes, fruit trees, and gardens, kill chickens, cats, migratory birds, pheasants, ducks, quail and grouse. They can also spread disease to other mammals as they eat out of garbage cans, carry fleas, ticks, lice, distemper, mange, and blood tests have shown that 80% of them have been exposed to rabies as indicated by the presence of a rabies titer.

For more information, search online for the topic of interest, plus Utah State University. Or get the book “Teaching About Invasive Species” edited by Tim Grant.

This is Ron Hellstern, and I am Wild About Utah.
 
Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Tim Grant, GreenTeacher.com
Audio: Courtesy Western Soundscape Archive, University of Utah, Sound provided by Jeff Rice, licenesed under CCA-ND
Text: Ron Hellstern, Cache Valley Wildlife Association

Additional Reading

Leavitt, Shauna, The Invasive Phragmites, https://wildaboututah.org/invasive-phragmites/

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
Audio: Freesound.org, Sound provided by Dynamicell and KingCornz, licensed under CCA-ND
https://freesound.org/people/Dynamicell/sounds/17548/
https://freesound.org/people/Kingcornz/sounds/342369/
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/cebr/planyourvisit/index.htm

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