The Woods Are Burning ~ Bernard Quetchenbach

 

1

 

On a rainless mid-July afternoon, Cara and I trekked along Rock Creek’s Lake Fork in the Beartooth Mountains northeast of Yellowstone National Park. Though we got our typical late start, we made the seven miles in to Keyser Brown Lake, huffing back to the trailhead—and out of bear country—just before dark. It was a grand hike, leaving us tired and satisfied as we drove back to our home in Billings. But why the rush? Why walk so far only to sit at lakeside for half an hour, turn around and hurry back the way we came?

In previous years, we had hiked under a time limit, due mostly to our faithful-to-a-fault companion, an aging arthritic blue heeler/lab mix. Rita was suspicious of most people and, true to her cattle-dog heritage, was something of a biter; we really couldn’t leave her with anyone, which meant that, when her hiking days were over, we always had to race out of the mountains and back home so she wouldn’t be confined in the house too long (she would have howled in the back yard). We didn’t begrudge her. She had many admirable qualities and was, after all, our dog. But, following her death at fourteen last September, this summer found us still rushing up the mountains and down again. Partly, we wanted to go a little farther than we could before, but partly it was just the rhythm that we were used to, a subset, perhaps, of the mechanically hectic—everything on a clock—pace of modern American life.

Our walk the next week was going to be different, consciously so. We would stop wherever we wanted along the way and spend as much time as we liked, with no very distant destination in mind. We chose our trail advisedly. Across the Silver Run Plateau from Lake Fork, Rock Creek’s West Fork is just a short jaunt above Red Lodge, the base-of-the-Beartooths town about an hour’s drive from Billings. The West Fork offers a variety of summer trails, some leading to the windswept plateau, others, less ambitious and more in keeping with our intentions for the day, up side drainages to mountain lakes. The path to Timberline Lake, a ranger told me on the phone, was still not “cut out” of the snow, but Basin Creek, closer to Red Lodge and about 500 feet lower at the top than Timberline, was open.

The Basin Creek Lakes trail is steep but not especially long—about four miles to the upper lake. We weren’t breaking new ground: we’d visited Basin Creek several times over many years. We had both hiked to Upper Basin Lake two years before, and Cara had more recently been as far as Lower Basin Lake with her sister’s family (I stayed in Billings that time with the dog). There’s an unassuming quality about Basin Creek. The lakes aren’t included in the designated Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, perhaps because the trail follows the ghost of a road past what’s left of a dilapidated cabin or two. The lower lake’s not much more than a pond crowded by conifers, their crisp reflections interrupted by flotillas of lily pads. The cirque glacier-carved into the Silver Run Plateau above the upper lake is impressive but not overwhelming, a perfect spot to spend what was to be, and in fact was, a restful mountain summer afternoon.

At Upper Basin Lake we sprawled on a room-size granite chunk where Cara and then-pup Rita had sat over a decade earlier with a Wyoming friend. Our stay was not completely idyllic. Occasional clouds of mosquitoes or passing showers kept us alert, especially the latter, as such afternoon rains are often punctuated by lightning. After a couple of hours on the big rock, we wandered a narrow fisherman’s path around to the other side of the lake. Lincoln’s sparrows flitted across what looked like mountain muskeg. The lowering sky, the boggy lakeshore, and the ubiquitous moose sign gave the place a kind of Maine feel, and, as is often the case in the Maine woods, it was a change in the weather that sent us down the mountain. Thunder echoed around the cirque. It was time to go.

Two weeks later, the West Fork was on fire.

 

It started in an abandoned campground, the cause listed at the interagency InciWeb wildland fire information site as “under investigation”; initial reports fingered the most usual suspect, lightning, though the focus would later lean toward intentional or careless human ignition. Before long, smoke billowed over the canyon. Friends and relatives of hikers along the popular West Fork trails began to worry, and homeowners in the smattering of new subdivisions above Red Lodge aimed garden hoses at their roofs and hung on updates from what had already become an “incident.” One of my co-workers, a business professor at Montana State University Billings, was camping with his children at Quinnebaugh Meadows, on the wrong side of the fire; they had to climb out over Sundance Pass and down to Lake Fork, emerging twenty-five miles by road from where their car waited at the West Fork trailhead.

The Cascade Fire had just ignited, but Forest Service managers were already talking about it burning until the first snow. Characterized by an official interviewed on the Billings evening news as “decadent timber,” century-old lodgepole pine and Douglas-fir in rugged terrain combined with a major blowdown the previous fall to create conditions ripe for “the big one,” a “megafire.” The West Fork forest was doomed. 

Doomed? We use words like that. Fire “destroys,” “consumes,” “incinerates” the places in its path. Or does it? We also know that in the West wildfire is endemic, even essential, the region’s fire-adapted ecosystems having evolved in a world of dry lightning, heat, and drought. And perhaps those trees really are decadent—beetle-riddled elders doing the conifer equivalent of doddering around the landscape. A forest is a living thing, after all, and must be able not only to grow, but to die when its time comes. In a year or two, under the black spars of burned trunks, elk will chew their cuds in rich fresh grass, surrounded by a riot of lupine and fireweed, while the bell notes of mountain bluebirds and the drumming of black-backed woodpeckers echo through the canyon. God’s in his heaven.

Maybe. There certainly is a sense of inevitability about the Cascade Fire, and the Gunbarrel Fire working through gray slopes of beetle-killed trees across the Beartooths in the Absaroka Mountains west of Cody, Wyoming, at the same time. But, though forest fires have always blazed across the West, this era of megafires—acre on acre, square mile on square mile, state after state, summer after summer, feels like a new thing.

Not that the ongoing spate of large conflagrations is without precedent. In the West, wildland fire tracks with recurring dry cycles. George Wuerthner, whose many books on the western environment include The Wildfire Reader, notes in a NewWest Network column that drought-fed fires consumed over 39 million acres in the 1930s, and cites a single 1910 blaze that scorched “3.5 million acres of Idaho and Montana in a single month.” Wildfire occurs throughout the United States from Alaska to the Everglades. New York’s Adirondacks endured railroad-triggered firestorms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Similar circumstances are implicated in America’s most devastating forest fire, which killed over a thousand people around Peshtigo, Wisconsin, on October 8, 1871, the same day as the famous Great Chicago Fire. Megafires can be traced through the geologic ages. Imagining a time-travel journey of 300 million years back to the Carboniferous Period, paleontologist Peter Ward describes a sky “yellow-brown, irrespective of weather,” polluted by “smoke from giant fires perpetually raging and new ones set alight with each lightning strike hitting the extensive forests of the temperate and tropical regions.” Even in the relative calm between megafire outbreaks, smaller blazes play a significant role in diversifying wooded environments: mountain meadows and aspen groves spring up in the wake of the flames, breaking up extensive single-species stands. The varied beauty we find in montane forests is in part a product of the history of wildland fire.

 

Why do the woods, especially if not exclusively in the West, burn? The situation is complex, involving several major factors, the most obvious of which is the interplay between climate and western ecosystems. Warm-weather precipitation in much of the region is notoriously unreliable, and seasonal thunderstorms often bring more lightning than rain. Various western plants have evolved to cope with, even profit from, periodic burning, and, drying in the summer sun, can even be said to encourage the flames. One of the world’s most combustible natural communities, California chaparral is attuned to expected patterns of wildfire in its habitat. Grassland fires sparked by lightning or set deliberately by Indians helped maintain the American buffalo prairies. The thick bark of mature redwoods and ponderosa pines allows them to survive all but the most intense infernos; typical grass fires sweep right past big ponderosas, leaving open parklike woodlands with well-spaced trees positioned to take advantage of limited nutrients and water. Northern Rockies forest species like lodgepole and whitebark pine are also fire-adapted. Something like 80% of the trees in Yellowstone Park are lodgepoles. Individuals of this short-lived species are equipped with specialized serotinous cones that burst open when heated. They are, in effect, Phoenix-trees. Examining the relationship between fire history and forest ecology, biologists William H. Romme and Don G. Despain concluded in 1989 that megafires like those that swept across about a third of Greater Yellowstone the previous year are simply an inevitable part of the life cycle of such a forest.

 Much has been said—most of it derogatory—about government firefighting philosophy and practices. After the Yellowstone fires, controversy flared around the infamous “let-burn” policy, though the majority of Yellowstone’s conflagrations were not covered by that directive. In 1988, Greater Yellowstone experienced 248 wildfires, only thirty-one of which fell under let-burn guidelines. Three of the seven largest blazes were fought immediately if ineffectually. Firefighters, even hotshots, will tell you there’s no way to stop a megafire once it gets going. Such an inferno follows its chosen path as if by will. The best firefighters can do is try to herd the flames away from buildings and communities. In his poem “Animals,” Robinson Jeffers envisions creatures of the sun with “bodies of living flame.” Managers talk about fire itself as a living thing, and anyone who has ever gazed into the writhing center of a campfire has a sense of what they mean. A wildfire “makes a run,” it “behaves” one way or another, it “tries” things. Sometimes it hides out for a while, buried in the duff and litter of the forest floor. A wildfire’s actions, like a bear’s, are unpredictable. It might turn away from human habitations, or seek out something to consume on the outskirts of a town—something like the Red Lodge Mountain ski resort, for example, nervously blasting its snow-making cannons against the leading edge of the Cascade Fire.

But let’s not let government agencies off the hook just yet. Following intensive clearing by miners and settlers, a century of fire suppression—Smokey Bear and his shovel—has reduced many mid-elevation Rocky Mountain forests to virtual plantations with little species or age diversity. An expansive panorama of identical conifers draped beneath snowcapped peaks makes a calendar image of wilderness. Such forests are cool and green; they “feel right.” The first burn I came upon was in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. The fire had probably occurred about a decade earlier, and the charred area was substantial, though not in the megafire range. It was June, with lush grass and plenty of wildflowers. Mountain bluebirds and woodpeckers flashed among blackened hulks. I was a bit surprised to find the burn zone a hub of activity in the quiet surrounding forest. Still it was a relief to pass back into the shade of living trees. Wildland fire expert extraordinaire Stephen Pyne has attributed such aesthetic reactions to a misplaced urban animosity toward fire, a cultural prejudice leading to the reflex snuffing of potentially cleansing minor burns and the concomitant overload of combustible fuel in mature forests like those in the path of the Cascade Fire. Even Romme and Despain acknowledge that, if not for aggressive suppression, mid-century Yellowstone blazes might have left natural firelines inhibiting the amalgamation of 1988 infernos with names—the Clover-Mist, The Snake River Complex—evoking the corporate mergers that, like the fires, roared across the American scene during the Reagan era.

Though a long-time foe of knee-jerk fire suppression, Pyne, writing in the Spring 2008 issue of The American Scholar, regards with equal skepticism the current conventional wisdom casting wildfire as simply a natural force best left alone. Such trust in nature to work things out despite the heavy hand of human influence Pyne characterizes as “faith-based ecology.” “In fire-prone settings,” he concludes, “big parks become permanent habitats for fire; left to themselves they will burn, often more ferociously than at any time in their history.” Pyne advocates directing fire toward desirable goals, but worries that agency fire management as practiced is likely to generate more heat than light. Employing a particularly acerbic analogy, he compares contemporary government managers’ enthusiasm for burned acreage to the reckless determination with which their predecessors “got out the cut.”

Though some early reports blamed lightning for the Cascade Fire—cause still “under investigation”—the day’s clear skies and the blaze’s origin near a community of summer cabins have led both local residents and the Forest Service to suspect a human-generated spark. Either deliberately or accidentally, people start fires. Arson, occasionally by unemployed firefighters drumming up business, has been implicated in a share of recent major wildfires. Careless mistakes are less dramatic but, one hopes, more common. Famous for his practical as well as philosophical skills, Thoreau nevertheless accidentally burned one hundred acres near Concord, Massachusetts, and Sam Clemens—aka Mark Twain—confessed in Roughing It that his campfire sparked a substantial wildfire near Lake Tahoe. Even if we see fire as an enemy to be defeated, there’s a certain hypnotic attraction to such an elemental force when freed from our control. At one of my first boy scout “camporees” I was what might be called a material witness at the dawn of a small grass fire. Most of the older boys were off somewhere, and I was left with another tenderfoot to watch the campfire while John, a more experienced scout, chopped wood. Despite his savvy, John axed a gash into his leg, and while he accomplished most of the stanching and wrapping for himself, my friend and I were distracted enough to let the fire escape into the surrounding field. But that’s not quite the way it was. In that moment before the others returned—now replayed in slow motion by memory—both of us saw the creeping flames on one side and John’s bleeding leg on the other, unable or unwilling to do anything about either. It was almost as if the world had its heart set on catastrophe and it would have been wrong to interfere.  

The human influence on wildland fire need not be a matter of management policy, carelessness, or even overt or passive pyromania. In private holdings abutting national parks and forests, changes resulting from human land-use have also fed the flames. People intentionally or inadvertently replace relatively hard-to-burn native plant communities with eminently flammable grasses. Introduced cheat grass—either downy or Japanese brome—edging up into the ponderosa hogbacks at the base of the Beartooth front gets a jump on native competitors by setting seed early, leaving tinder-dry yellow shreds to bake in the sun until ignited by lightning, fireworks, or sparks from passing cars. And of course, residential development in the “wildland-urban interface” has increased the stakes, making it more difficult to let fire play its natural role. Nobody wants to see their expensive dream house or multigenerational summer getaway converted to ashes, and buildings burn even more readily than trees. Pyne, channeling for combustion itself, points out that “houses . . . as viewed by fire, are indistinguishable from piles of logging slash.”

A 2006 study by University of Arizona ecologist Tom Swetnam and three Scripps Institute researchers cites drought and increased heat as causes of the recent spike in wildland fire activity. Climate cycles are notoriously hard to interpret, but a consensus is emerging that the West is subject to alternating dry and relatively wet periods that might last decades or centuries each. Despite the proliferation of more glamorous theories, evidence persists that it may have been extended drought that drove the Anasazi from their southwestern farms. In One Long Winter Count, Colin Calloway details the formative role of rainfall cycles in the cultures of Native American peoples inhabiting the West before the region was “discovered” by Lewis and Clark. According to Calloway, Indians responded to long-term fluctuations in water supply by shifting back and forth between agrarian and hunter-gatherer lifeways. The Euroamerican settlement of the West corresponded, it seems, to a wetter-than-average swing now in the process of reversing.

Anthropogenic climate change adds an unprecedented wild card to the mix of forces influencing wildfire patterns. At first, climate models suggested that Montana and the interior Northwest might get wetter as the climate warmed. Wishful thinking, it appears, as later models favor dry heat for Montana as well as for the rest of the Rockies. Judging by my neighborhood, that’s consistent with what’s happening on the ground. During 2007, the city of Billings recorded forty-two days with highs of ninety or above, two more, in fact, than the number of days in which the temperature stayed below freezing. Of course, extrapolating from limited data is fraught with uncertainty. Even as our power to warp our planet’s systems increases to sorcerer’s apprentice levels, a humiliating lack of understanding makes it impossible to say for sure just what is attributable to us and what is not. We know that drought and fire have risen with the temperature over the past few decades, but, as Pyne concludes, “Nobody can say for sure how much of this agonizing bout of aridity is attributable to man-caused climate change and how much to the inevitable reappearance of dry spells in a region that has endured prolonged droughts for millennia. . . .No one really knows.”

In Montana, there aren’t many climate change doubters left, at least outside the state legislature, and not much denying that summers have lately been longer, hotter, and dryer throughout the region, giving mountain wildfires plenty of time to grow and ideal conditions for taking off on the wind. Swetnam calculates that “The fire season in the last 15 years or so has increased more than two months over the whole western U.S.” Organisms in arid regions may be adapted to dry conditions, but the effects of drought in the West tend to be magnified since “water budgets” are strained even under optimum circumstances. The sooner the winter snowpack melts, the lower the summer level of creeks and rivers, and the quicker the forest dries out. The drought that fed the 1988 Yellowstone fires took place in a context of heat waves and low water across North America. With the moisture content of park forests reduced to that of cured lumber, the first major blazes were underway by the middle of June and the last were not extinguished until snow fell in mid-September.

Los Angeles Times reporters Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart, interviewed on NPR’s Here and Now public affairs program, observe that western wildfires have not increased in number—there were more, in fact, in the 1960s—but the intensity and behavior of wildfires have changed in disturbing ways. Their findings resonate with recent hurricane studies; it appears that basic elements and forces currently in play will continue shaping a region’s climate, but storms are likely to be more severe, droughts more protracted, cyclical shifts more sudden and extreme, like weather on steroids. In the face of human meddling on the planetary scale, it’s hard not to see stand-replacing infernos as elements of the apocalypse of the natural world in what Bill McKibben calls this age of “decreation.”

Ultimately, even the most expected phenomena—drought, fire—may become frighteningly foreign as effects compound. Global warming threatens to accelerate the rate of change beyond the adaptive speed of plants and animals, an evolutionary potential that encompasses the ingrained limits of human understanding. The unspoken faith that though the weather may shift “every five minutes” significant climatic variations stretch out over geologic or at least historical eras is simply no longer tenable. Maybe it never really was.  

 

Applied to nature, what do words like regular, stable, normal, mean? If spared by the development sprawl we grumble about but think we understand, things—natural things—are supposed to remain more-or-less as they are. If that’s too much to ask, we expect ecosystems to advance through predictable stages of change toward equally predictable goals. The notion of orderly forest progression to a stable “climax” state is challenged by the history of the Rockies, where forests come and go distressingly abruptly in what seems like haphazard fashion. In Irvin Shope’s Four Georgians, displayed at the Helena, Montana, Regional Airport, the capital’s namesake mountain hunches open and grassy above the horseback founding miners. The painting is based on historical accounts and early photographs. If the artist had used today’s view as a model, the mountain would be covered by a thick cloak of conifers. Relying on Mt. Helena as a landmark, the founders might not be able to relocate their claim today.  Mt. Helena’s conifers, however, are currently under bark beetle attack, which could ultimately return the mountain so a state closer to that depicted in the painting.

The Beartooth Mountains around Red Lodge are moose country. Tourist brochures show these giant deer roaming residential streets. Once, I saw a moose in Red Lodge myself, leading a small parade of curiosity-seekers. Faced with ubiquitous commercial images ranging from the stately antlered silhouette gracing the doorway of the elegant Pollard Hotel to the considerably less formal sneaker-clad bullwinkle representing the annual Fun Run for Charities, it’s easy to forget how rarely moose were reported by early travelers. In fact, their abundance around Red Lodge may prove to be historically ephemeral. Yellowstone Park northern range surveys estimate a 75% population loss since 1988. What’s behind this precipitous decline of such a well-loved member of the charismatic megafauna? Some of my students have a quick reflex answer—the reintroduced wolves have, obviously, eaten them all. But research suggests a different explanation. Moose in the Rockies winter in dense woods, precisely the kind that a century without wildfire brought to places like the West Fork of Rock Creek. As flames have raged across northern Yellowstone over the last twenty years, moose have been dispossessed, retreating south of Yellowstone Lake; there, despite the 1988 fires, the landscape remains mostly forested, and post-fire recovery seems likely to result in a moosey paradise of lush forest punctuated by wet meadows. But the migration hasn’t stopped there. In fact, moose have been moving rather rapidly southward down the Green River, perhaps following a route blazed by early twentieth-century forbears who established a small population in the Uinta Mountains. During the 1990s, I was surprised to find a moose along the Green at southwestern Wyoming’s Seedskadie National Wildlife Refuge, named for the more expected sage grouse, and even more startled by a cow and calf crossing a highway not far from Logan, Utah.

Despite the innate regional suspicion directed toward government land-management agencies, for generations national park visitors and area residents alike have accepted as a given that the world we see around us is basically as nature intended—the way it should be—especially in a carefully protected place like Greater Yellowstone. But the “natural state” envisioned in the influential 1963 Starker Leopold report as “a vignette of primitive America” when first seen by Europeans is perhaps unrealistic given the dynamism of a place like Yellowstone. And of course, the initial set point is somewhat arbitrary, as has the theory’s application been in practice. For one thing, national parks, like the rest of “primitive America,” were inhabited places in which untold generations of humans had played various roles in shaping the landscape and biota. Natural processes—avalanches, earthquakes, storms, fires—have also altered park environments, and will inevitably continue to do so. As Yellowstone writer Paul Schullery has it, “we obligate ourselves to preserve the wild setting as it was when first discovered, but the wild setting may not want to stay as it was.”

The 2008 season marks the twentieth anniversary of Yellowstone’s ordeal by flames, labeled by CBS “the first mega-fire.” Romme and Despain might disagree with that assessment, but they wouldn’t deny the impact of those conflagrations on our perceptions. Park publications and ranger programs bravely address fire ecology alongside such favorite topics as geysers and grizzly bears, and a commemorative “Yellowstone Fires of 1988” insert accompanies the Yellowstone Today park newspaper distributed at entrance stations. Despite the fanfare, it’s apparent that, even two decades after the event, the Park Service hasn’t fully recovered from the bitter, often patently unfair criticism hurled its way in the wake of the flames. “Fire scares most people—and that’s a big reason why wild fires make such news and why much misinformation is spread,” the newspaper insert somewhat defensively announces. Park administrators seem gratified, or maybe just relieved, that the “Children’s Fire Trail” constructed after 1988 has had to be broadened in interpretive scope to “The Forces of the Northern Range” “because the trees grew back so quickly and strongly.” The message, an implicit rebuttal of Starker Leopold’s base assumption, is clear enough. The 1988 fires have shown that, whatever harmonies exist over biomes and eons, viewed on a human scale natural systems are fundamentally unstable. We can influence change, even cause it sometimes, but we can’t prevent it. 

             

2

 

From Billings, hazed in smoke, the Cascade Fire is undefined, unlocated. I climb the Rimrocks above 17th Street at sunset when the Beartooths are under ordinary circumstances etched most clearly on the southwestern horizon, but only a vague shoulder hunches over the place where Red Lodge must be. That will have to do. The blaze is out of sight, like a hurricane lurking off the Florida coast wisping signals to the surrounding country.             A few days later, I’m on a jet, en route to visit relatives in Upstate New York. Distinguished by its telltale yellow underside, a thick layer of smoke looms over the shadowy Beartooths, merging to the south with the shroud of the Gunbarrel Fire.  Between the smoke and a ceiling of high clouds, the bottomless blue of the western summer sky stripes the pallid gray spreading out beyond the plane window.

Distance matters. In Rochester, the air is dank and heavy. A powerful thunderstorm rakes the night sky, but curtains of rain pelting the already-saturated ground make wildfire unlikely. It’s been a cool, almost autumnal, summer. When I visit friends, our conversations are likely to touch on my days in the Beartooths, theirs in the Adirondacks. Rochesterians, it seems, are unfazed by conflagrations in the Rockies, not least because they’ve been educated to accept the “naturalness” of western wildfire. The consensus from an Upstate New York porch is that the West Fork forest will certainly return.

And, if the Adirondacks provide a true analogy, it will. Like the Rockies, the mountains of New York have a history of wildfire. Roxanna Robinson’s 2003 Adirondack novel Sweetwater culminates in the kind of world-changing blaze familiar to today’s Montanans. But the heyday of Adirondack fire was around the turn of the last century, when loggers left slashpiles to cure in the newly-opened sunshine until ignited by sparks from passing steam engines. In 1903, a conflagration in the Lake Placid area consumed over 600,000 acres, megafire territory by any measure this side of the Carboniferous. The fear of rampant wildfire and its effects on water supplies was influential, in fact, in the establishment of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. As the twentieth century advanced, wildfire diminished to a point where blazes were uncommon and generally self-contained, leading a spokesman for an Albany-based environmental group to claim in a 1995 letter to the New York Times that “The Adirondacks has not been dubbed the ‘Asbestos Woods’ for nothing.” Minus the logging slash and locomotives, the forest made its peace with fire, at least until the recent hot, dry years. In 2002, New York curtailed plans to send its firefighters west because they were needed at home. District ranger captain John Streiff attributed the Adirondack outbreak to drought, concluding that “Normally, if everything is lush, we wouldn’t be having the fires.”

Time matters. A resident of, say, 1900 Saranac Lake or Speculator, or maybe of 2002 Lake George, would well recognize the pungent drift of smoke that accompanies a Montana August. Yet when I was a boy my family toured the Adirondacks almost every summer without coming upon any evidence of wildfire—except for the vigilant lookout towers testifying that the wilderness had benevolent, invisible guardians. Though the difference between the state preserve and the embedded paper plantations with their straight rows of even-age evergreens was obvious enough, for the most part I saw the vast unbroken woodland racing past the car windows as an unchanging “forest primeval.”

It wasn’t. The north woods I visited in the 1960s were not as the early timber cruisers had found them a century before. Loggers targeted first pine and then other softwoods. The glorious deciduous spectacle that brings “leaf peepers” to the mountains each fall may be partly anthropogenic, as beech, maple, and other hardwoods have come to dominate more of the Adirondack forest. In recent decades, acid precipitation from auto emissions and from power plants as far away as the Ohio Valley has also impacted New York’s north country, killing high-elevation conifers and inhibiting sugar maple reproduction in some parts of the mountains. Even in the East’s oldest, largest, and most carefully protected wilderness, the human “fingerprint” has been, and continues to be, evident. 

Both Beartooths and Adirondacks feature harsh, challenging growing conditions. Soils are thin and rocky, slopes steep, winters long. But the Beartooths present an additional complication, aridity. The generally humid Adirondack forest supports a wide variety of trees, and can therefore absorb the removal of pine, or the disease-linked losses of chestnut and elm. Changes in forest composition consist mostly of the substitution of certain species for others. Pyne acknowledges the possibility that, in the West, “the relentless long drought . . . could even allow landscape-sized conflagrations to catalyze a mass turnover of the biota, in which the organisms that presently inhabit the affected lands can no longer survive and will be replaced en masse.” But the tree species native to Greater Yellowstone are limited to riparian willows and cottonwoods, the occasional aspen grove, and a handful of hardy conifers. Though the burned forests of Yellowstone Park are, by and large, regrowing nicely, in the low Bull Mountains north of Billings, scorched four years earlier by the catastrophic Hawk Creek Fire, the scarred earth has generated little more than noxious brome below the sinking husks of a few pines. Swetnam estimates that half of the West’s forests may be replaced either by different forest types or by nonforest ecosystems within the next century. Like the Bull Mountain pinelands, the scraggly ponderosa buttes and ridges along Interstate Ninety north of the Beartooth front eke out a hardscrabble existence in the rain shadow of the Cordillera. Both may be among those environments converted to nonforest, with, unfortunately, exotics like cheat grass waiting in the wings.

Since Montana’s lodgepoles are not hugging the edge of the species’s range, they should be able to withstand some measure of climate change as such, but pines to the south in Colorado are being ravaged by mountain pine bark beetles to the point of becoming endangered in that state. The beetles have been controlled in the past by the former frigidity of the Rocky Mountain winters. When I returned to the Yellowstone country after a decade in the East, one of my friends told me that “it doesn’t get cold like it used to,” an opinion I’ve found is widely held, apparently by insects as well as humans. Like fire season, beetle season has lengthened, with reduced likelihood of deep wintry snaps during fall and spring catching the larvae at crucial stages of development. Moreover, bugs tend to prosper in fire-damaged timber, and the combination of weakened trees and warmer, dryer weather has resulted in an unprecedented West-wide plague of beetle damage, plainly evident in Greater Yellowstone forests. If one or more major conifer species, compromised irreparably by the combination of protracted drought and insect onslaught, fails to regenerate after wildfires, the future of the landscape is anyone’s guess. 

 

The Grebe Lake trailhead is on the Norris-Canyon road, close to the center of Yellowstone Park. As Cara and I pull into the parking lot, we are startled by the simultaneous arrival of a fleet of yellow hotshot transports. Energetic young firefighters leap out of the vehicles, but we soon notice they’re laughing, apparently just on an outing or perhaps taking a quick break en route from one assignment to the next. A few engage in truckside calisthenics, keeping in shape, ready for action. For now, though, all is calm.

The trail, an old fire road, crosses small meadows and forest burned in 1988. Some areas feature dense regrowth, the deceased parents leaning in Freudian fashion over a sea of head-high offspring. In other places, more sunbaked or steeper or thinner-soiled, the process is painfully slow, from a human perspective anyway, with young trees scattered, framed by the crisscross trunks of fallen fire-victims still whole after twenty years. The youngsters look generally healthy, a few browned in the center, perhaps by insects. Later, I will learn that a characteristic mark of mountain pine bark beetle infestation is deadening beginning at the middle of the trunk, eventually extending upward into the crown. Though outbreak populations might occasionally resort to overcrowded or damaged saplings, bark beetles prefer mature forests; in fact, one element being blamed for the “perfect storm” of conditions behind the current epidemic in the Rockies is the old standby, fire suppression, which has favored the same kind of monoculture feast that makes Midwestern cornfields so vulnerable to insect attack. A bark beetle flying into a canyon full of century-old conifers would find nothing but food as far as the compound eye could see.

The presence of beetles in the new forests would, I suppose, be par for the course. Mountain pine beetles, like excavator beetles and spruce budworms, are as much a part of Rocky Mountain ecosystems as grizzly bears, and have as much right to Yellowstone as do the pines themselves. If stand-replacing wildfire is truly a forest-health restorative, insect depredations in tightly bunched young trees need not represent a continuation of the plague. In fact, the bugs may just be fulfilling their traditional Darwinian role, thinning out weaker saplings and providing room for the fitter to grow. For now, let’s hope so.

No hordes of woodpeckers today, but families of mountain bluebirds drift from burned snag to burned snag, perhaps chasing plentiful grasshoppers and gulping an occasional mosquito. Chipmunks and chipping sparrows work around and across the grid of logs. Gray jays skirt the open burns, hanging in the shadows of living pines and Douglas-firs. An odd touch is provided by an osprey nest high in a scorched-naked treetop we pass long before the lake becomes visible from merely human height.

Grebe Lake sits against a backdrop of Washburn Range hillsides, old growth threading the lighter green of new trees and the gray remains of 1988 in a textbook burn mosaic. Around the lake, monkshood, gentians, and “Rocky Mountain yellow flowers” crowd the occasional silky elk thistle in bright grassy meadows. Gadwalls, goldeneyes, Canada geese, cormorants, even a pair of loons join the namesake grebes—eared grebes to be exact—on the placid water, and ospreys eye the surface, perhaps for ripples of the grayling that, reputedly easy to catch, have brought a smattering of fishermen, including children, to the lake. Spotted sandpipers work the shoreline, along with song and Lincoln’s sparrows. Bear tracks attest to other, bigger denizens, but a startlingly abrupt movement in the trees proves neither grizzly nor moose—only a ranger breaking camp at a secluded backcountry site.

We eat lunch in a shady place by the shore, eager to see where the loons will surface next, whether the sandpipers will lead their fledglings past our spot, if one of the osprey pair will snag another grayling. An idyllic afternoon unfolds in what Wendell Berry calls “the peace of wild things,” but, as usual, the summer sky eventually gathers threatening clouds. Before we get back to the trailhead, we’re walking through light rain and pea-size hail, one terrifying thunderclap echoing off the heights of Mount Washburn behind us.

Our way back to Billings will take us through the territories of the LeHardy Fire in the park and the Gunbarrel Fire in Shoshone National Forest. Despite the LeHardy’s unnatural genesis—it was sparked by a downed power line—both are “good fires,” we are assured by an attendant at the cavernous new Canyon Visitors’ Center. The hope among managers is that the Gunbarrel Fire, particularly, will be an ally in preventing future episodes like the 1990s beetle scourge that grayed whole slopes along the North Fork of the Shoshone River. The main culprits—Douglas-fir beetles, close cousins of the lodgepole variety—originally moved into the canyon from the edges of the Yellowstone fires. Now the bugs’ old benefactor might turn on them, arresting incipient outbreaks in their tracks with a liberal touch of cosmic irony or, if you will, poetic justice. 

After consulting with the authorities at Canyon, we drive south, delayed for a time in a traffic jam we fear might signal an unanticipated shift by the ostensibly well-mannered LeHardy Fire. But as we inch forward the obstacle is revealed to be a sizeable herd of rutting bison cavorting in the road, heedless of the nerve-jangling rattle blasted through truck-mounted speakers by a frustrated ranger. Between Hayden Valley and Yellowstone Lake, the fresh black of the LeHardy Fire spears through the still-green surrounding forest, the flames having moved northeast, apparently harmlessly, into an earlier burn. Without the interlacing branches necessary for the dreaded crown fire, a blaze in previously charred timber essentially goes one tree at a time, “torching” its way slowly, clearing the ground and conditioning the soil, providing light and nutrients for the burgeoning seedlings.

The Gunbarrel Fire has grown to over 30,000 acres, largish even by current standards. Signs warn travelers between the park’s east entrance and Cody of “wildfire activity ahead.” At one point we’re close enough to see a column of smoke over the canyon, and the air is dimmed for several miles along the North Fork road. A fire headquarters at the Big Game campground looks like a miniature Crow Fair comprised of a field of colorful firefighter tents surrounded by larger military-style messes and a sprawling assortment of tankers and equipment, both for firefighting and for the maintenance of the camp itself. But the headquarters is quiet, the personnel on a watch-and-wait standby.

It’s been a good day for my personal concept of wildland fire. In the midst of a Greater Yellowstone protected by diligent but confident public servants convinced that this latest round of burning is necessary, useful, and, given the local conditions, normal, I’ve wandered through a spirit-restoring national park wonderland robustly regenerating a healthy, resilient forest of the future where even bark beetles have their role to play.

 

Or so it seems. A few days after our hike to Grebe Lake, skepticism again rears up. I came to the Yellowstone country as a new resident just a few years after the 1988 fires. My first experience of Greater Yellowstone was, therefore, of a landscape replete with the aftermath of wildfire, whole mountainsides devoid of living trees, a situation which, according to interpretive materials provided by the Park and Forest Services, was pretty much the way it was supposed to be. Such an assessment was neither ill-informed nor unrealistic, but given the intervening summers of megafire, there is perhaps more reason today to doubt the assurances of well-meaning experts.

Wildfire may be natural, but it’s probably safe to say that human influence of one kind or another has exacerbated the current outbreak. And as climate change—the “800-pound gorilla in the room”—continues to engender longer, hotter summers with worsening droughts, western megafires may be revealed to be as much an artifact of industrial human civilization as the firestorms that swept the Adirondacks a century ago. An artifact, especially, of the way we get around under our big sky. In her memoir Balsamroot, Mary Clearman Blew observes that “Driving in the West means distance. All of us do it, at seventy or eighty miles an hour for hours on end.” Everything is far away, and the rural West has traditionally had neither the resources nor the inclination to support much in the way of public transportation. As environmentally aware Billingsites, we limit driving in town, try to coordinate and combine errands that require a car. We ride bicycles, and we like to walk. But if global climate change has directly or indirectly precipitated a new age of apocalyptic megafires, than what we’re doing is evidently nowhere near enough. The blazes sparked by passing cars on Interstate Ninety along the Beartooth front may be emblematic of what the automobile and its fossil fuels leave in the wake of human passage through the West’s, and the world’s, environments.

In an article about the Adirondacks, McKibben once wondered if people could love the mountains enough to stay away from them. I can’t bring myself to think that our best response to places important to us is to avoid them. Not yet. I like my job, my colleagues. I accept and for the most part enjoy being a part of my community in Billings. But I didn’t come back to this part of the world a few years ago for Billings. I’m here because of Greater Yellowstone, because in the early 1990s something told me that this is where I belong. I didn’t listen closely enough then, but I’m listening now. During my time away, I kept track of the Yellowstone country—conditions in the northern range, the interactions of wolves and prey—but distance and preoccupation with things and places nearer at hand colored my view. Without renewed experience, the mountains were inevitably suspended in memory as they existed when I last immersed myself in their immediate living moment. How can I return only to my mind’s-eye Yellowstone of 1992, or of 2008, without dimming my awareness of the vibrant, troubled, mutable—in short, real—place silhouetted on the Billings horizon?

Why can’t someone open a passenger rail line across Montana and Wyoming, connecting the modest number of spots I want to reach? Why not a car that runs on wind or sunlight and is rugged enough for the dirt roads in the Beartooths? Where’s cold fusion when we need it? But what if there will be no solar cars, no cold fusion? What if we ultimately decide, perhaps by default, that maintaining our way of life is more important to us than life itself? Or if our collective imagination simply cannot envision a viable alternative? Then where are we?

Veterans of titanic uplift and erosion, the Beartooths will endure the legacy of climate change, and, though its individual manifestations may fall victim to a desperate search for energy sources, the Yellowstone hot spot will continue its inexorable churning far below the earth’s crust. McKibben’s belief that global warming signals “the end of nature” notwithstanding, the processes of geology and evolution remain in force. But how we come to grips with our role in decreation may be as important to us as how to deal with all that carbon dioxide is to the biosphere. Indifferent to Starker Leopold’s noble preservationist sentiments, nature can be ruthless in its solutions, replacing moose with mule deer or pronghorn, shade-loving trout with less-fastidious catfish, ponderosa pine with cheat grass; such ecological adjustments do not appear to play favorites. Nature may not have “last best places” to protect.

 

3

 

Winter brought generous precipitation to the Northern Rockies. Creek flows have remained robust, the snowmelt late and gradual. The course of 2008 Montana and Wyoming wildfires has been dictated mostly by local conditions, rather than by pervasive heat and hydrologic drought as in 2007. With new snow almost certain to crest the mountains and dust the high meadows of Yellowstone in a few weeks, we still have days with a hint of smoke in the air, but the etched outline of the Beartooths has returned to the Billings sunset horizon.

 InciWeb’s “last update” has the LeHardy Fire still peaceably “smoldering in heavy fuels” in an old burn. At over 60,000 acres, the Gunbarrel Fire has grown genuinely large, its sheer size leading to increased urgency as firefighters attempt to steer the flames away from lodges and homes. From the Gardiner Lake trailhead on the 10,000-foot plateau near Beartooth Pass—mostly tundra, at least for the time being, and unlikely to ignite—the Gunbarrel looks like a volcanic eruption, motion frozen by distance, smoke pluming thousands of feet above the Absarokas in a curving pennant undoubtedly causing air quality alerts in Cody. Still, officials continue to regard the Gunbarrel as a good fire with relatively predictable behavior and largely beneficial results.

The Cascade Fire near Red Lodge has also calmed, reaching a final size of a moderate 10,173 acres, with crews “Continuing to demob,” according to the final InciWeb report. The West Fork Road won’t reopen for general use until September, but inholders have been allowed to find what’s left of their summer refuges, the fortunate structures intact amid slopes of burned timber and the ruins of neighboring cabins. The fire never reached past the edges of the Red Lodge Mountain ski resort, and fears that it would “sweep all the way into town” appear to have been unfounded. In short, it seems not to have been “the big one” after all, and, if not a good fire, it may prove useful in slowing the spread of future blazes.

Late in August, in the Bull Mountains north of Billings, a wind- and heat-driven blowup swelled the perimeter of the thought-to-be-contained Dunn Mountain Fire, roaring through dry grass and previously charred ponderosa pine, to 100,000 acres. But over the Labor Day weekend, heavy rain and the first high-elevation snow reduced all area blazes to smoldering. At what looks like its finish, the 2008 fire season, even including Dunn Mountain, pales against 2007, when, according to High Country News, 740,000 Montana acres burned.

Most West Fork hiking trails remain closed because of hot spots and the danger of falling trees. But there are other places to hike. There might still be time for a walk or two before deep snow seals off the Beartooth Plateau, and there’s no place quite like Yellowstone Park in the fall. We may not see Timberline Lake or Basin Creek until next summer, when fireweed might already gentle the young burn with a rich amethyst carpet. We’ll prepare ourselves to note the profusion of wildflowers, the influx of woodpeckers and bluebirds. And—since most wildfires are erratic, patchy—we’ll hope. Newspaper maps of the fire zone, more illustrations than actual representations of the situation on the ground, show the preponderance of the burn across the canyon from the lakes. Perhaps the old cabin ruins along Basin Creek will somehow have been spared. Maybe the boggy shore of Upper Basin, the snow at Timberline, will have discouraged the flames. Maybe not. But the overall atmosphere of the canyon will be different in any case. One of my university colleagues recently returned to Billings from traveling and, unaware of the fire, drove up the West Fork to the roadblock at Basin Campground. What he saw beyond was a “big black mountain.”

 In twenty years, if the climate holds in something resembling its present state—admittedly a major if—a new crop of lodgepoles, with perhaps a few Douglas-firs mixed in as before, will crowd the forest floor. Beetles will have settled back into their pre-plague role opening spaces by eliminating weaker trees. Aspen groves will flourish in post-fire meadows. By then, I’ll be seventy-three, with a little luck still capable of climbing through saplings to the Basin Creek Lakes.

Romme and Despain estimate that the first stage of regeneration in Yellowstone will take about fifty years. It’s hard for me to imagine a fifty-year-old Beartooth forest; whether because of natural fire cycles or decades of fire suppression—maybe both—there’s little in the way of such “early middle-age” woods in the area. But in fifty years I’d be—what, 103? Not long after the Yellowstone infernos, a lifelong resident told me that he knew all about wildland fire’s inevitability and ecological role, but the burned landscape just would never be the same for him. I could understand what he meant, but I’m learning it first-hand now. One of my significant places has become a different place entirely. The moose-haunted forest is gone. Not for good, we hope—the moose and I—but for the rest of my lifetime.

 

In the wake of the Cascade Fire, moose may withdraw from another small portion of their local range. If it happens that their appearances on village streets eventually become less frequent, wolves are likely to share the blame with the federal government. But perhaps for the time being we’ll still find moose tracks near Red Lodge, along Lake Fork and in the streamside mud at Quinnebaugh Meadows, above the burn on the West Fork.

When Tom was a boy—I remember him as about nine at the time—we were confronted by a moose in a trailside meadow at East Rosebud Lake, a drainage or two from the West Fork. This was no cheery Fun Run bullwinkle, but a frustrated adolescent enduring, perhaps, an unsuccessful first rut. It was dusk, and grizzly country, no place to be out walking after dark; wedged between moose and lake, we had no alternative route back to the trailhead. Bunched into a tight phalanx with responsible adults in the lead, we ventured into the moose’s meadow. As we passed out of his sight behind a willow, the bull came on, antlers lowered, plunging through the lakeside brush. Rita the dog, always more intelligent than heroic, reached the other side of the clearing first, followed in short order by Cara and me, unaware that Tom, behind us, had been cut off by the moose’s charge. Fortunately, the bull had made his point; while he resumed his desultory browsing, Tom was able to inch across without further difficulty. For Cara and me, it was of course a parental nightmare, but the fleeting moment when we became undeniably the focus of one moose’s world was also destined to become part of our family legend, an adrenalin-pumping encounter with nature in the raw indelibly imprinted on all of our memories. That’s where it will have to stay. In 1996, East Rosebud Lake was in the path of a midsize blaze much like the Cascade Fire, an “incident” that destroyed some summer homes and, I suppose, that particular moose’s winter refugium as well.  

Tom’s first backpacking hike was a short overnighter to the West Fork of Rock Creek. That was almost twenty years ago. A couple of months before the Cascade Fire, he visited his parents from his home in California. After dinner in Red Lodge, we drove up the West Fork Road to the still-in-place seasonal barricade. After parking by an idle plow, we headed up the glistening asphalt path between the pitted drifts. Snow cornices froze in balanced waves along the creek. A dipper bowed on a mid-stream boulder. A month earlier, when the roadway was still groomed for winter hikers and skiers, Cara and I had watched golden eagles flying in and out from an overhung ledge high above Wild Bill Lake, a couple of miles past the gate. We thought they might be nesting.

But we didn’t get that far this time. About a mile above the gate, the road ahead was claimed by the only moose we’d seen since returning to the Rockies. It was getting late; what daylight there was on an overcast evening was climbing the canyon walls, leaving us in deep shadow. The eagles could wait for another time; a moose was plenty for one walk. For a while we watched her sampling what was left of last year’s willow growth along the creek, then we turned back toward the car in a cool spring rain.

 


 

Notes

 

Page 3: InciWeb is described as “an interagency all-risk incident information management system.”  Cooperating government agencies include the National Park Service and the Forest Service, among others.

Page 4: The Wuerthner citation is from his article “Land Use Planning Must Address Wildfire Plain,” available at the New West Network. For more on this fire, see Tim Egan’s 2009 book The Big Burn.

Page 5: Peter D. Ward’s Out of Thin Air was published by Joseph Henry Press in 2006. The quote is on page 112.

Page 6: A discussion of Romme and Despain’s findings can be found in a New York Times article, “Vast Yellowstone Fire Now Seen as Unstoppable Natural Cataclysm,” dated December 12, 1989. My source for statistics regarding the number and causes of the 1988 Yellowstone fires is the National Park Service article “Wildland Fire in Yellowstone.” “Animals” by Robinson Jeffers, originally published in 1951, can be found on Page 95 of the Vintage edition of Jeffers’s Selected Poems. The quote is from line 10.

Page 7: Pyne’s article, “Passing the Torch,” quoted here and on subsequent pages, is available in an online version at the website of The American Scholar.

Page 9: The 2006 wildfire study, published in Science Express, was conducted by climatologists Anthony Westerling, Hugo Hidalgo, and Dan Cayan, all of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the University of Arizona’s Tom Swetnam. The sponsors were NOAA, the Forest Service, and the California Energy Commission.

 

Page 10: Billings temperatures are from the National Weather Service’s 2007 Climate Summary for Billings. The Swetnam quote, as well as the CBS reference on page 215, is from “The Birth of the Mega-Fire,” a CBS News report dated October 27, 2007. The statement that climate doubters have become rare in Montana is based on University of Montana climate scientist Steve Running’s 2008 characterization of audience reactions to his presentations. During the last few years, attempts to sway public opinion have been fueled by two relatively cold winters and the tempest-in-a-teapot “climategate scandal.” The apparently deliberate use of misinformation in this effort is profoundly immoral, but, in Montana as elsewhere, it has been effective.

Page 11:Boxall and Cart’s comments are from a July 2008 episode of Here and Now.  McKibben’s “decreation” is from “Climate Change and the Unraveling of Creation,” originally published in the December 8, 1999 edition of The Christian Century.

Page 12: For information on moose populations, see Daniel B. Tyre’s article Moose Population History on the Northern Yellowstone Winter Range,” originally published in Alces in 2006.

Page 13: The Leopold quote is from Wildlife Management in the National Parks, available at the National Park Service website. Schullery’s observation is quoted in a review of a 2008 University of New Mexico Press edition of his Yellowstone classic Mountain Time. The review appears on page 85 of the Summer 2008 issue of Montana Quarterly.

Page 14: The supplement “The Yellowstone Fires of 1988” was included by the National Park Service in the Summer 2008 issue of Yellowstone Today.

Page 15: The Forest History Society’s “U.S. Major Wildfires Timeline” lists the area burned by the April 1903 Adirondack fire as 637,000 acres.

Page 16: Eric J. Siy, described as the Adirondack Project Director for the Albany-based group Environmental Advocates refers to the “Asbestos Woods” in his letter “Let’s Quell Unfounded Fear of Adirondack Fire” in the October 2, 1995 New York Times. The Streiff quote is from “Rash of Fires in New York” in the August 16, 2002 edition of the online Wildfire News. Information on acid rain’s effect on western Adirondack hardwood reproduction is contained in “Hardwood Regeneration Failure in the Adirondacks,” a 1997 white paper by Jerry Jenkins, available from the Wildlife Conservation Society. The “forest primeval” is Longfellow’s term for the forests surrounding the Acadian settlements of Nova Scotia in Evangeline.

Page 17: The Swetnam reference is from “The Age of Mega-fires,” an updated (December 30, 2007) and expanded 60 Minutes version of the CBS article cited earlier.

Page 18: The information on bark beetle susceptibility to cold is from D.A. Leatherman, I. Aguayo, and T.M. Mehall of the Colorado State Forest Service, provided by the Colorado State University’s Extension at the university website. For more on pine beetles, see also “Red Scare” by Jeremy Smith in the September/October 2008 issue of Montana magazine.

Page 19: The term “perfect storm” is widely applied to the current beetle epidemic, especially in Colorado, where the loss of a generation of lodgepole pines is imminent. Typical is the factsheet presented on the Boulder County government website.

Page 20: “The Peace of Wild Things” is the title of a frequently anthologized Berry poem. The phrase also appears in the poem’s last line. The poem can be found in Berry’s Collected Poems 1957-82 (North Point, 1985), page 69.

Page 22: The quote is from page 23 of the 1995 Penguin paperback edition of Mary Clearman Blew’s Balsamroot. The End of Nature is the title of McKibben’s 1989 book on climate change, published by Random House.

Page 25: The High Country News reference is from the August 25, 2008 issue, page 3).

 

 

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