Before the snow flies this winter, Donald Despain plans to complete a seed count that should give an indication what will be growing in Yellowstone's burned areas when the snow melts next spring.
Even forest acreage that was completely blackened by the eight major infernos that swept the park during the summer should blossom into lush, grassy meadows next spring, he predicts.While walking through a smoldering meadow, Despain's trained eye spots something amid the ash on the ground. He stoops and plucks up a tiny seed wing that carried an even smaller lodgepole pine seed from a cone somewhere nearby to this open spot on the ground.
Despain estimates 50,000 to 100,000 seeds of various plant species are lying beneath the fertile ash left by the fire. A separate count of lodgepole pine seeds puts the number of pine tree seeds at 50,000 to 1 million seeds per acre.
Despain is Yellowstone's research biologist and has studied the trees, grasses, flowers and shrubs in the park for 17 years. He wants to know what kind of seeds are lying in the soil because it's part of his job - and because park officials and a number of politicians also want to know as they debate Yellowstone's management policies preceding the fire and contemplate changes in the Park Service's management of the nation's oldest and best-known National Park.
Soil samples have been collected and are being cultivated in greenhouses so the germinating plants can be identified and counted during the winter.
Grasses and reeds are already growing through the ash, and as many as two tons of aspen roots are alive and growing under each acre of burned trees.
While much of the political furor over the summer's fires in the park involves looking back at management policies that may have gone awry during a drought-stricken summer that preceded the Yellowstone inferno, most scientists in the park are looking ahead to answer questions about what the park will look like, how long it will take burned areas to grow back and how wildlife will be affected.
Despain didn't wait for the fires to be put out before he started digging roots and probing the soil to see what lives beneath parts of Yellowstone's lodgepole pine forest after the fires passed through.
The fires spread through roughly 1.1 million of the park's 2,219,893 acres. Inside the perimeter of the fires, "estimates run from 30 to 60 percent of that acreage is all that's really burned," Despain said.
The burned areas are scattered like patchwork amid the green, untouched forest. Some damaged areas were left completely black by the fires; other areas were only partially scorched. "The trees that are discolored won't make it. Some of the others that have blackened trunks will die. I don't know how many," Despain said. Trees that burned but survived will have scars.
Scars on living trees have helped scientists track fires that date back before Europeans came to the park, Despain said. Ironically, a 500-year-old stand of lodgepoles west and slightly north of Old Faithful were intentionally burned by firefighters trying to shift the North Fork fire away from the Old Faithful Inn and geyser.
The 500-year-old stand was the oldest known group of lodgepoles in Yellowstone.
The spring grasses will be thriving before park officials have a definite count on the number of acres that were burned, Despain said. The number of acres destroyed or damaged is a question park officials are anxious to answer, perhaps because of the widespread perception that all of the 1.1 million acres involved in the fire were destroyed.
Spring will bring a dramatic contrast of color as the meadows flourish beneath stands of dead lodgepole trunks that will turn from pitch black to gray in two or three years as the bark sloughs off. Despain said the dead trees will be left standing except in areas where they could pose a hazard when they fall.
Some of the lodgepoles killed this summer will still be standing 10 and 20 years from now. Most will have fallen to the ground where they will gradually decay over the next 100 years.
There are a few dead trees in the park still standing from a fire in 1954. "There are some that burned in 1930, but practically none of those trees are still standing. Some of the trunks are still on the ground, and some have rotted away."
The park scenery next year will provide a variety visitors have never seen before, Despain said. Park officials reported in October the count of late-season weekend visitors is up almost 50 percent compared to recent years. Reservations to-date for the park's winter season are comparable to previous years.
Any fire department in the country could put on a water show better than Old Faithful, but people flock to the park by the millions to see Yellowstone's geysers because the water show is natural, Despain said. The diverse scenery left by the fires should also attract visitors. "We can come and watch this natural phenomenon and then we can watch what happens after it."
Within three years, the amount of ground covered by forest-floor species will be equal in burned and and unburned areas of the forest. About 15 different species will be present the first growing season, increasing to between 20 and 30 species within 5 years.
It will take 20 to 30 years before sagebrush pushes through the grass and weeds to establish itself at pre-fire concentrations. New lodgepole pines will begin to grow next spring but will not create a canopy over the now sunlit forest floor for 50 years.
The Forest Service started planting grasses in fire breaks cut by bulldozers on National Forest land just outside Yellowstone during the last week in September, but no replanting has been implemented in the park.
"I hope when I tell them we've already planted 50,000 to 100,000 seeds per acre they won't want to get some more seeds out there," Despain said of the seed-drops that occurred naturally. Supplemental planting would be unnecessary and unnatural, he said.
"Do you want to come to Yellowstone and see a nice little green fringe along the side of the road where you know that somebody's planted it? Or do you want to come to Yellowstone and see nature renewing itself and see the whole natural process - over the next 200 years. We'll get to see the beginning stages of it and our children and grandchildren will see some of the later stages."
Several nationwide environmental groups have responded to criticism about the park's selective "let-burn" policy by supporting views like Despain's that the fire this year was natural but unusual because of the drought and aged, fire-prone lodgepole pines. But the support hasn't been unanimous.
Wind River Multiple Use Advocates in Riverton, Wyo., said the "rampaging wildfires" proves the existing policies and philosophies are unwise. The group also says the ash left by the fires does not contain as many nutrients as the Park Service has announced.
The group charges the Park Service's nature-without-man experiment has serious flaws and that officials should develop policies in which humans are cast in a more active role.
Environmental groups more supportive of natural-burn policies, like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, Mont., add a caveat to their support by suggesting a thorough ecosystem-wide review of the effects of the fire with extensive public involvement. The coalition "will ask that the plans of the seven national forests of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem be amended to respond to the changes which have occurred this summer. In some areas, major adjustments may be necessary in the timber harvest, grazing and other programs," reported Louisa Willcox, program director.
The Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C. suggests the Forest Service should have made a quicker response in fighting some of the park's fires - perhaps. "We do not have nearly enough facts at this point to assess the agencies' judgment," said society president George T. Frampton, Jr., in a prepared statement.
No doubt the environmental groups will be among those studying the park in the months to come, along with academic researchers from universities in the region surrounding Yellowstone. Despain said a number of scientists hoping to conduct studies in the park have already applied for federal research grants.
The House and the Senate conducted oversight hearings Sept. 29 to ask questions of Park and Interior Department officials about the handling of Yellowstone's fires. A congressionally-appointed assessment team has been sent to the park to review fire management policies and is to make a recommendation to Interior Secretary Donald Hodel on Dec. 15, said Interior Department spokesman George Berclay.
Berclay said the assessment team is comprised of professionals who come mostly from Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
Wyoming's two Republican senators, Malcom Wallop and Alan K. Simpson, are also involved in Yellowstone's political fire storm and have asked for the resignation of National Park Service Director William Mott.
"On Aug. 11 we received a letter from director Mott saying the fires were `under control.' At that point they had burned 200,000 acres," said Wallop's assistant press secretary Stan Cannon. "When Mott came out in September and expressed surprise that there was worse devastation than he anticipated, the senator just felt this was outrageous."
Cannon said the September joint hearing in Washington was the only one scheduled to discuss Yellowstone. Wallop would like to see additional field hearings, including some to assess the impact the fires had on businesses surrounding the park.
Flexible fire management policies need to be developed that give local officials more control in handling wildfires, Cannon said.
Bureaucratic responses to new situations that keep cropping up are being dealt with as they develop - even the decision on how to handle offers for help. "We've had an outpouring of support, principally financial, from corporate America as well as local citizens and school groups," Berclay said.