The sensational accounts of destruction reported during the fires in Yellowstone last summer made it difficult to present the ecological side of the story.
Now that speculations have been corrected by science and nature's control of the nation's oldest national park, the Park Service's "let burn" fire policy is seen in a better perspective, John Varley, Yellowstone's chief of research, said during a recent lecture in Salt Lake City."For nature, opportunity rarely has knocked so loudly in Yellowstone," he said of the park's experience with fire in 1988.
Heat killed only 1 percent of the seeds, roots and rhizomes growing on the forest floor. Heat from the fires released seeds from the cones of the park's many lodgepole pines, covering the forest floor with 500 to 1,000 new seeds per square foot. "We don't need to re-seed Yellowstone. It has re-seeded itself," he said.
The most profound observation, Varley said, is that the largest fire- suppression effort in the country - a 21/2 month, $120 million task involving 25,000 firefighters in Yellowstone - met with little success until a mere quarter-inch of rain and snow on Sept. 10 "took the wind out of the sails" of the fires.
Of the nature-caused fires that initially were allowed to burn, only nature was able to put them out in the end, he said.
Varley said the fires and the abrupt introduction of the nation to the Park Service's fire policy have been described as a national tragedy, a national wonder, a unique research opportunity, the most significant ecological event in the history of the national parks, a policy disaster and nature exercising its prehistoric right to make over her own landscapes.
"Now that the fires are out it appears they might be best characterized as simply a `big surprise.' "
While even the most experienced land managers were also surprised by the fires' behavior and magnitude, several key researchers predicted a major blaze.
Yellowstone's chief plant biologist, Donald DeSpain, and an independent consultant reported shortly before the fires started that massive fires occurred in the park every 200 to 400 years, and that a big fire was due sometime within the next century. "The fires of 1988 weren't a surprise to quite everyone."
The aftereffects of the fire are proving to be equally dynamic."The fires themselves, as some observers have noted, are only the first act of the play, and there promises to be a lot more drama to come," Varley said.
"For those who enjoy ecological implications more than political and social consequences, the greater Yellowstone ecosystem has just received a dynamic jolt of prehistoric dimensions, and all members of those communities will be doing all that evolution will allow to take advantage of that new order."
That drama will run the gamut from ecological implications to political ax grinding, he said.
"Though there appears to be already nearly a consensus among participants in both the political and scientific dialogues that some sort of natural fire policy is necessary, there is still a great difference of opinion on what that policy should be."