The blazes that scorched a million-acre mosaic of timber, meadow, sage and grassland in the Greater Yellowstone Area presented park ecologist Don Despain with the chance of a lifetime.
Plenty of research was available on what happens after massive wildfires burn forested areas. But before the Yellowstone fires of 1988, there were virtually no studies that compared the before-and-after effects on vegetation.Before the fires skipped across Yellowstone, Despain was able to inventory the range of plant and tree life in 12 areas of the park.
Despain, who now works for the U.S. Geological survey, has monitored those plots for the last decade.
His research has yielded new information about forest management, both by confirming scientific hypotheses and uncovering a few surprises.
"One of the things is we probably don't need to reseed after fires," Despain said. "Mother Nature already has a big seed source out there."
The vast majority of Yellowstone forests are lodgepole pines, which bear cones that depend on fire to germinate.
The lodgepoles were not the only species to benefit from the fires.
According to Despain, there are as many as 15 native plants that no one had ever seen in the park until after the fires. Their seeds had been lying dormant deep in the earth for several hundred years, and it took the heat of massive fires to cause them to germinate.
Bicknell's geranium and shiny-leaf ceanothus are two of the plants that appeared soon after the fires, though Despain said they have already started receding as more common plants re-establish themselves in burned areas.
For the most part, Despain said what comes back after fires tends to be what was there before, but the ratios change as various plant communities succeed one another over time.
Plants like dragon's tongue, which were present in small numbers in mature lodgepole pine forest before the fires, are now abundant since the shade of the forest has been removed, he said.
"The major point here is that it's a natural system, and I think that's one of the things that does tend to get lost" in the debate over allowing fires to burn on public land, he said.