Copyright Rocky Barker, 2002

Yellowstone fires and their legacy

Chapter 2

Don G. Despain led an entourage of reporters, cameramen, photographers, sound men and producers to an isolated stretch of sagebrush country in Yellowstone's northern range. He has probably brought hundreds of tours to this open expanse of ground that to the untrained observer looked like thousands of miles of sagebrush range throughout the desert West.

 We were here to listen and to see Despain's story of the rebirth of Yellowstone after the 1988 fires. Despain is a plant ecologist, not a an interpretive ranger. He is more comfortable as an observer of nature's grand mysteries than as a front man for national park policy.

Yet when he kneeled down beside a young sagebrush, his enthusiasm about the small natural processes that tell the big story was infectious.

"This was all covered in sagebrush with a thick green carpet underneath," he explained, taking himself back to the days before 1988. It’s an area with good soil, thick grass and little exposed dirt.”

Underneath each individual sagebrush, he said, lies organic material; accumulated, twigs, dead grass and the like. When the Wolf Creek fire burned into the area September 9, 1988, this material burned even hotter than the surrounding grass. When he arrived later he found "black holes" where the sagebrush had burned, a vivid contrast to the green carpet of grasses already growing back. A closer look reveals the stump of an earlier sagebrush burned in the blaze.

"These were the only places that seeds could get started," he explained pointing to a former black hole. "The only place sagebrush is coming back is in those black holes."

He walked a few feet away, camera in his face and Judy Mueller, one of ABC Television’s top correspondents, going over with him the theme of the story that ran the next night. For Despain, she was just the latest in a series of journalists who would come to tell his story in the wake of the 1988 blazes.

It was yet another August in the Rockies in the 1990s. Fires were burning out of control across the West. Television cameras were once again bringing images of conflagration into America's living rooms.

As always the news reports were dominated by reports from the front. They showed yellow-shirted firefighters marching up steep mountains to dig fire lines. Air tankers dropped magenta retardant on raging crown fires. Fearful homeowners evacuated or stood and fought the disaster themselves.

Since 1988, Despain and Yellowstone became a regular part of the annual journalistic kabuki show on wild fire. As the cameras show flames and the martial images  in one segment, another returns viewers to Yellowstone where nature is the story. Mueller and her Los Angeles crew look slightly out of place in Yellowstone's wide open spaces, but not Despain. He seems to belong in Yellowstone like the coyote, bison or fireweed. Despain grew up in Wyoming's Big Horn Basin just to the east of Yellowstone. He went to the University of Wyoming and majored in botany. Then he went to Arizona and got a masters degree in plant ecology. He left the West briefly to attend the University of Illinois but soon returned West to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, After he received his Ph.D in 1971 he returned to Wyoming to take a research biologist job in Yellowstone.

Despain stopped walking and asked the reporters and producers if they notice any difference. Only steps away from the first area, we have walked into range with far more sagebrush and less grass. There is a lot of exposed ground.

My first guess is that overgrazing by elk might have encouraged the sagebrush at the expense of grass. Wrong, said Despain.

"The soil right here isn't as good," Despain explained. Without a thick carpet of grass, the sagebrush seeds find many places to grow in the exposed dirt. Soil, not fire nor elk were the determining factor in how these two pieces of range look and are structured.

In one area you can predict with precision where each sagebrush will grow, not just in the next few years but after the next fire and on into the next centuries. In the other range nature's random chaos also restores its own continuity. In 15 to 20 years it will look like it did before the fire, Despain said with confidence.

Before modern man came to this area it burned every 25 to 30 years, he said. In a lot of ways fire is superficial. The system has adapted to it. Anything that would be damaged by fire left a long time ago.

If Despain has his way that natural rhythm will be restored to the area. The fire policy his helped shape now says that it will. That policy and Despain's career survived their trial by fire in 1988. While Yellowstone's ecosystem had adapted to fire after millions of years of evolution, its human inhabitants were only beginning to get used to it.

Since 1988, Don Despain has experienced a rebirth nearly as spectacular as the unique ecosystem he studies. The thoughtful, steady ecologist s career has been inexorably intertwined with Yellowstone s natural fire program. When it was under attack by the press and Congress, indirectly Despain was under attack. Eventually the attacks became even more direct.

In August of 1988, Despain was taking another journalist, Jim Carrier, of the Denver Post, on another one of his ecological field trips. He was showing Carrier one of his experimental plots where he was studying the effects of fire on Yellowstone’s extensive lodgepole pine forests.

The North Fork fire was burning its way through the area slowly, approaching this piece of ground Despain had monitored for years. As it reached his spot he quipped “burn baby, burn, pleased that he had a fire to add to his data set.

Carrier reported Despain’s ecological message in the front page story the next week. But the message was obscured by Despain’s innocent words, now blown up to headline type. It was immediately interpreted that he, and therefore all Yellowstone officials were pleased fire was burning through the landscape held sacred by millions of Americans.

Within hours Wyoming’s two Republican U.S. Senators Malcolm Wallop and Alan Simpson were on the phone to Yellowstone Super intent Robert Barbee.

“They wanted his head,” Barbee said.

Today Despain says the comment was taken out of context. Carrier stood by his story.

Even if the comment itself was misconstrued, Despain’s advocacy for natural burning continued long after other park officials were committed to throwing every firefighting resource they could muster at the blazes.

Up to then the army of reporters who had come to Yellowstone to cover the blazes had unlimited access to Despain, who was not only the scientific spokesman for the park’s fire policy he help write, but also one of the primary fire behavior experts.

But now he couldn’t be found as Barbee muzzled him and replaced his voice with John Varley, Yellowstone’s research chief in 1988. Varley nearly as gifted as Barbee in handing out television sound bites, could be trusted to stick to the new party-line script.

Yellowstone had been fighting fires since July 14 yet the story told by the national media was that park officials were letting the fires burn. The fire policy was developed with the view that the largest fires would be in the neighborhood of thousands of acres, not hundreds of thousands of acres.

The National Park Service, the entire Reagan Administration, had a public relations crisis crisis on its hands. The ecological story was not especially popular with the pro-development views of Reagan appointees like Interior Secretary Donald Hodel anyway. Park officials had all the time in the world to talk about it when the crisis had past.

So Despain kept his job, his spot in Yellowstone but was now invisible. The next time I saw him was September 9, the day the rains came and the fires stopped on the doorsteps of Yellowstone’s park headquarters.

Now that the meadows are green and the lodgepoles as high as 15-feet tall, Despain has been vindicated. His survival came not because of great political skill. He simply was right and in fire management truth prevailed over politics.

When the fires started Despain was the natural spokesman for the National Park Service to explain their significance to the press and the public. He was after all, Yellowstone's foremost expert on fire. He had come to Yellowstone a budding plant ecologist with one of the great opportunities ever afforded one of his discipline.

In 1869, German biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology from the Greek word:
oikos, meaning house or place. He used the word to describe the study of the relationship of an organism to its organic and inorganic environment.

The field of ecology was pioneered by botanists in the early part of the 20th Century. Plant ecologists did much of the early research and developed the leading theories in the field. One of the leaders was Frederic Clements, born five years later in Nebraska.

He advocated the concept of ecological succession among plant communities. Plant communities, Clements argued, progress through a series of distinct stages to a final climax stage. Soil conditions and climate dictated what species would dominate each stage and eventually dominate when climax was achieved and a natural equilibrium reached. Fires and other disturbances would disrupt the process but then it would start all over and move toward climax again.

Victor Shelford, a professor at the University of Illinois, applied many of Clements’ concepts to animal ecology  and their collaborations in the 1920s and 1930s brought together the fields of plant and animal ecology. Their major point: A biotic community was a complex organism in and of itself, an ecosystem where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Up until the late 1950s, ecology was still a rather obscure field. Forestry and wildlife management, fields of applied science that had economic and popular appeal received more attention and funding.

But the publication of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, about natural life around his Wisconsin cabin in 1949 and Rachael Carson’s classic Silent Spring, about the threat of pesticides to the world’s food chains in 1962, popularized the study. When Despain arrived in Yellowstone a year after Earth Day, ecology was beginning its hey day and he was in one of the centers of ecological research and management. Yellowstone was to ecology in the 1970s what Paris was to art and literature in the 1920s. Despain was surrounded by an almost legendary team of scientists – Wildlife biologist Douglas Houston was studying elk on Yellowstone’s northern range. Biologist Mary Meagher, was working on her landmark study of Yellowstone's bison. The grand debate between Glen Cole, Yellowstone’s research chief and the Craighead brothers, John and Frank, over grizzly bears was bringing national attention to Yellowstone's experimental management programs. Maurice Hornocker, was conducting pioneer research into the life history of cougars.

Yellowstone and the NPS nationwide were beginning to institute the findings of a committee convened by interior secretary Stewart Udall in 1963. The panel, under the chairmanship of A. Starker Leopold, A University of California zoology professor and the son of Aldo Leopold, started looking at wildlife management. But its recommendations transcended traditional wildlife management. The committee urged that national parks preserve or restore natural processes. It was the first step toward managing ecosystems.

“As a primary goal we would recommend that the biotic associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man,” the committee wrote.

In 1968, the National Park Service approved new policies that put in place the recommendations, recognizing ecosystems as a composite whole.

“Management will minimize, give direction to, or control those changes in the native environment and scenic landscape resulting from human influences on natural processes of ecological succession,” NPS said in its new policy.

There is no more natural a process in any ecosystem than lightning-caused fire. In its policies for the management of natural areas like Yellowstone, NPS said in 1970:

“The presence or absence of natural fire within a given habitat is recognized as one of the ecological factors contributing to the perpetuation of plants and animals native to that habitat. Fires in vegetation resulting from natural causes are recognized as natural phenomena and may be allowed to run their course when such burning will contribute to the accomplishment of approved vegetation and/or wildlife management objectives.”

Since the park's establishment in 1872, all fires had been fought, the suppression limited only by the amount of people and equipment available. Actually fire control efforts began in 1886 when the U.S. Army arrived to manage the park. Fighting wild fire was one of the bedrock responsibilities of all federal land managers until the 1970s. But it wasn't until managers had airplanes to drop slurry retardant, helicopters and smokejumpers for quick response after World War II that firefighting became consistently effective.

About the same time, the U.S. Forest Service began using fire as a forestry tool in the South. NPS experimented with controlled burns in Everglades National Park and Sequoia National Park in the 1950s and 1960s. When Despain arrived in Yellowstone, 12 NPS units allowed at least some lightning-ignited fires to burn.

In the spring of 1972 Yellowstone embarked on its own natural fire policy, allowing naturally occurring fires to run their course over 340,000 acres of the park, about 15 percent of its total land area. The plan required that natural fires that start in the areas must not pose an immediate threat to visitor use areas like Old Faithful.; human life could not be endangered and lands managed by other agencies, such as surrounding national forests had to be protected.

The areas were located northeast and east of visitor centers because, a history of project fires in the park indicated that the dominant direction of travel was to the northeast and wind was necessary for large fires to develop, Despain wrote in a paper co-authored with Robert Sellers in 1976. That insight into Yellowstone fire behavior proved out in August, 1988.

In 1974, upon Despain's recommendation, Yellowstone officials began work to expand the natural fire area to include all portions of the park managed as wilderness -- about 1.7 million acres. Final approval to the plan was given in early spring, 1976. Then Yellowstone officials negotiated a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Forest Service in the Bridger-Teton National Forest to the south. The agreement allowed natural fires to burn across the common boundary between the park and the Teton Wilderness, which had a similar plan.

The rationale for the natural fire policy was simple even if revolutionary. Fire had been one of the most significant natural events, perhaps the major force shaping the landscape, the plant communities, the whole greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Species like the lodgepole pine had evolved to adapt to fire. The structure and composition on many of the plant communities within greater Yellowstone -- and throughout the Northern Rockies -- is dependent on fire.

Lodgepole pine developed what foresters call serotinus cones, which won t open without exposure to heat such as experienced during fires. Even in the worst fires the cones protect some of the precious seeds so they can restock the stand. Douglas fir developed a thick bark resistant to ground fires. Rabbit brush, aspen and other trees sprout from roots, usually protected during fires.

Fire turns living plants and dead organic material into useable nutrients that can be cycled through the often relatively sterile ecosystems of the region. Mineral flow through the system and soil fertility are enhanced by fire. Fire was an essential recycler of the carbon and other elements in the ecosystem.

Throughout the northern Rockies, including Yellowstone, the climate is too dry for decomposition throughout most of the summer and too cold in the winter. The result is that plant growth far exceeds decomposition and biomass, builds up on the soil. Periodic fire recycles this biomass and makes up for the lack of decomposition. These conditions are ideal for lodgepole pine, which makes up 77 percent of the forest cover in the park.

Birds, mammals, insects and even microscopic animals all have adapted to the plant communities that have evolved under natural fire regimes. They too have become dependent on its unrelenting power to shape their homes and habitat.

Fire frequency in nature has been tied primarily to the climate. It in turn helps to determine the type of plants that occur on a site. Yellowstone is so large that it shows much of the variation of the surrounding region. On its more moist areas, much of the park s higher elevation forests, surface fires are more limited and fire frequency in general is longer. On drier areas, such as the lower elevations in the north, fires were more frequent historically.

When fires are suppressed, unnatural changes occur in the forest ecosystem. Forests advance into what might otherwise be grassland. Biomass accumulates to unnaturally high levels. Species composition changes.

In large portions of the Northern Rockies, ponderosa pine have grown up thick in park-like open stands. Fire naturally burned through these relatively dry areas in intervals from 10 to 30 years. The fires would burn all the younger trees and bushes before they could establish themselves. The tall pines would survive because of their thick orange bark.

When modern man entered the picture a century ago this natural balance was upset. The small, frequent fires that had cleared away the undergrowth were now fought with increasing efficiency. Loggers came in and harvested the larger, more desirable ponderosa pines, leaving the white fir and Douglas fir.

Without the frequent fires the fir grew in thick stands that used far more moisture than the well-spaced ponderosas. When drought continued across Oregon, Washington and Idaho in the late 1980s, many of the fir trees were attacked by bark beetles, and many of the trees died. These forests that once were kept in relative equilibrium by fire, now were vulnerable to giant, stand-replacing fires unusual in the ponderosa pine forest.

Stand-replacing fires are not unusual for lodgepole pine, they are the norm. Despain and other scientists understood this even before 1988. But they didn't guess just how large such catastrophic fire events could be. It just wasn't in any of their experiences or even in the experience of science worldwide.

The only large fires that western fire experts had seen were the great fires of 1910. The racing crown fires burned through the tinder-dry forests of northern Idaho and Montana nearly unimpeded just as states and the federal government were beginning to put fire suppression program into place. Without the understanding of ecology and fire history, foresters missed the lesson of the 1910 fires. Instead of recognizing the inevitability of catastrophic fires in western forest types, they learned they should jump on small fires before they become large fires. By the 1960s they had become pretty good at it.

Yellowstone had tough fire years in past dry years but the largest fire in the history of the park burned only 25,000 acres in 1886. Between 1972 and 1987, lightning started 235 natural fires, which burned only 34,000 acres in Yellowstone. Only 15 burned more than 100 acres. The largest fire Despain saw was only 7,400 acres.

Before 1988, Despain had studied 140 such fires in the 2.2 million acre park. Most cooled before they reached 250 acres; the largest was 7,000 acres. In the 1979 fire season, 29 fires were started by lightning and 11 of these were suppressed because they were becoming a threat to public facilities. Of the remaining 18 fires, 13 burned less than an acre. One lasted six weeks but only burned 20 acres. Four grew large, burning a total of 10,520 acres.

The 1981 fire season was the most severe under the natural burning program before 1988. It had 57 fires caused by lightning, one short of the highest number of fires in 50 years. Twenty-eight were allowed to burn themselves out. Fifteen remained less than an acre in size and a total of 20,240 acres burned.

As a forest grows from scratch, such as after a major fire it goes through several stages of succession. Succession begins with pioneer species such as lodgepole and aspen then slowly changes in species composition if left undisturbed to become dominated by such species as alpine fir. These climax forests are generally more diverse. Before 1988, Despain had observed that most large crown fires started in older stands of lodgepoles or in climax, old-growth forests. When these fires reached younger forests, he reported in 1977, the flames would drop out of the canopy and creep slowly across the ground for a short distance. Then they would either burn around the younger trees or go out.

He knew that some fires had exceeded 50,000 acres in size in the past but not many. His studies of natural fire through 1987 had built a solid basis on which to measure the coming events. They also set the table for the miscalculations in 1988 and his temporary disfavor with his bosses in 1988.

Meanwhile, the Leopold Report, Yellowstone’s natural management program and the scientific theories on which Despain’s work was based came under new attacks. Alston Chase, a philosophy professor who lives north of the park, wrote the bestseller Playing God in Yellowstone. In the book Chase said the park’s “natural regulation” policy was based on a misguided historical and scientific ideal of nature unaffected by man. He said when the Park Service changed from years of manipulating the forest by fire suppression, it should have aggressively lit controlled burns during less dangerous conditions to remove the large build-up of dead, dry fuels and to improve wildlife habitat.

"If they had gone to a prescribed burn policy 16 years ago, they would have been burning under a controlled situation so that when we had a dry year, such as this one, we wouldn't have the runaway wildfires we're having now," Chase said in 1988.

Chase was later proved wrong by further historical research that showed the park’s lodgepole pine fire frequency largely unaffected by the relatively short period of suppression.

 Varley, speaking in August 1988 for Yellowstone defended the natural burn policy as a part of the park’s experimental management program in answer to critics including Chase.

"We started a policy 16 years ago and learned as we went," he said. “Each natural burn and prescribed burn taught the agency new lessons and provided new information used in future management. But then Mother Nature throws in a year that's not in your data set."