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Wildfire ReLeaf.

The wildfires that raged through the West last year may have been best captured by a picture of two elk seeking refuge in a river as the fire burned out of control all around them in Montana's Bitterroot National Forest. The image seared in American consciousness the destruction caused by wildfires. Even so, the role fire should play in our forests continues to be debated. As the talks continue and new longterm strategies evolve, a large scale tree planting campaign to restore millions of acres of damaged forests is launched.

As our 2001 wildfire season begins to look more and more like a repeat of last year's historic season, AMERICAN FORESTS, the nation's oldest conservation organization, wants individuals and corporations to join a massive tree planting effort to repair damage to millions of acres of charred forests.

The 2000 wildland fire season in the United States was among the worst in modern history. A reported 92,250 fires burned across 7.4 million acres, double the annual average of the past decade. More than half the affected forests were in five states: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico.


The numbers were staggering: The month of July began with large fires in the Northwest; Great Basin, Alaska; Southern California; and the Northern Rockies, and ended with 48 big fires still burning. In August, the nation's third driest month since records were begun in 1895, dry lightning storms passed through Montana's Bitterroot Valley, starting 70 to 100 new fires a day. By August 21 the number of large fires had grown to 98. More than 30,000 civilian and military firefighters were called to action, including experienced teams from Australia, Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand. Fire suppression costs totaled close to $2 billion.

The most famous fire of 2000--a springtime prescribed burn gone awry at Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, New Mexico--caused the evacuation of the entire town before destroying 235 homes and other structures, and damaging the Los Alamos National Laboratory

Many of these wildfires burned hot from the crowns of the trees well into the soils. The most intense fires nearly sterilized the soil, destroying seeds and nutrients and compromising the process of natural regeneration. Not all fires were so damaging. Some of them, and even substantial portions of the intense fires, burned lighter in ways that wildland fire has burned and benefited forests and wildlife for millennia. These "lighter" fires burned less hot and stayed closer to the ground. The ash that remained contained nutrients that improved the forest soils, benefiting larger established trees and new plants that would emerge.

The sizeable increase in intense and damaging fires in recent decades is due, in large part, to successful efforts to suppress wildfire in the 19th and 20th centuries. Prior to that, fire was a routine part of forest life. Lightning fires cleared the woods of brush, dead wood, and an overabundance of young trees. Native Americans burned woodlands to promote desirable plant growth and to drive game. But America's perception of wildfire changed forever in 1910 when 3 million acres in Idaho, Montana, and Washington burned in two days, killing 78 firefighters.

The "The Big Blowup," as it became known, was followed by decades of official policy that all wildfires were to be fought and stopped. Now, decades after the 1910 fires, many of our forests are tinderboxes waiting to burn. And fires that would have been rather inconsequential explode from the forest floor through the tops of the tallest trees, burning with a vengeance. That's what happened over and over last year in ponderosa pine stands, from Los Alamos to the Bitterroot, where the forests have missed from 8 to 20 natural cycles of fuel-reducing fire.

With the recent increase in size and intensity of wildland fires, also comes a more urgent need to rehabilitate damaged areas to prevent further degradation from erosion and the invasion of noxious weeds, such as cheatgrass. Mountain streams clogged with silt washing from bare slopes, or that heat up because of the loss of shade along their banks, cannot support healthy populations of trout, salmon, or other aquatic species. Preventing the further degradation of these damaged ecosystems while putting them on the path to restoration is precisely why AMERICAN FORESTS developed the Wildfire ReLeaf tree planting initiative.


To individuals and corporate sponsors, the Wildfire ReLeaf concept is simple: every dollar plants a tree. The work, of course, is more complicated. Every site is different and so too is the prescription for restoration. Different sites require different species, different planting techniques, and the cooperation of different partners. A growing network of cooperating organizations develops ecologically sound planting and education projects funded through cost-sharing grants administered by AMERICAN FORESTS. A secondary goal of the program is to foster the social and economic well-being of communities as well as healthy ecosystems.

Any way you look at it, the need for new trees is sizeable. Hundreds of thousands of acres, probably millions, need planting. Soon after the Cerro Grande fire last year--the 47,650-acre fire that burned into Los Alamos--a team of burn area rehabilitation experts found that fully 35 percent of the site burned intensely. They called for the planting of at least 200,000 ponderosa pine seedlings on that one fire site. AMERICAN FORESTS recently compiled a list of 9 projects in five states where 2.5 million trees could be planted; proposals for 2002 planting in Montana and northern Idaho alone total nearly 3 million trees. Ponderosa pine, Western Larch, Whitebark pine, and Aspen would be planted to return those species to large areas of their native ranges.

The success of Wildfire ReLeaf will depend upon the support that comes from individuals and corporate sponsors who learn about the campaign through the media, from friends, or from public service ads and corporate promotions. Eddie Bauer, a five-year tree-planting partner with AMERICAN FORESTS, has pledged to raise $1 million through its "Add a Dollar, Plant a Tree" program. The specialty retailer strives to meet that goal by inviting shoppers to make contributions to Wildfire ReLeaf in its stores, online, and when shopping by phone.

The U.S. Forest Service has also become a partner and will match Wildfire ReLeaf donations tree-for-tree. To build awareness and interest, AMERICAN FORESTS is also expanding its website (www.american and email outreach to provide more information on projects, wildfire issues, and policy. In early June an alert was issued on the website to draw attention to the recordsetting size of Florida's wildfires, to report on projects the organization planted following the major fires there in 1998, and to appeal for support to do more this coming winter. Links were provided from the site for those wanting up-to-date information on the course of those fires.


The buildup of hazardous forest fuels that has resulted in today's damaging wildfires occurred over a long period of time. And it will take time, most likely measured in decades, to restore forest ecosystems. The federal government will play a central role in addressing this problem and AMERICAN FORESTS has proposed goals to guide the federal approach. These include protecting communities and key ecological resources from the threat of wildfire in the short term, while restoring ecosystems to conditions in which wildfire plays a regenerative rather than destructive role. Open collaboration with a broad range of interest groups and organizations, commitment to monitoring and to learning and corrective action, and promoting a locally based restoration economy are other important principles that should guide the federal action. Details on AMERICAN FORESTS' policy proposals are available on line.

Planting trees is one part of a complicated--but critically important--longterm strategy that is required to restore healthy, thriving forests in this country. Thanks to Wildfire ReLeaf, there are now easy and effective ways we can all participate. AF

Photos: Seedling, First Light/CORBIS: Elk on Bitterroot: John McColgan: Trio planting: Zachary W Griffin
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:efforts to restore lands affected by wildfires
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Next Article:Swamp Quest.

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