Copyright Rocky Barker, 1999

Yellowstone fires and their legacy

Chapter 9

As his son loaded the car with belongings, John Varley watered down his roof and firewood at Mammoth Hot Springs in preparation for the arrival of the fire that was advancing on park headquarters.

Varley was the park's chief spokesman for its natural management policy. He found himself in the same awful spot that residents in Cooke City, Silver Gate, and West Yellowstone had been in before.

He faced losing his home and most of his belongings to the fires he said would provide significant ecological benefits to the park. But there was little talk about a forest rebirth during the tense days of early September.

By that time Varley and his superiors were publically recognizing that the fires had turned into a disaster.

"Your attitude changes when you're on your own roof," he said.

The fire stopped before entering Mammoth on September 10. Despite high winds that day the fires that have burned across 1.6 million acres in the park began to cool and have slowed since. But the controversy over the natural burning policy and the entire "natural regulation" scheme for managing park resources continued to burn uncontrolled. Allowing natural fires to alter the landscape is a cornerstone of the natural management policy of leaving natural systems undisturbed.

The same day Varley was defending his home, Interior Secretary Donald Hodel began what several proponents consider the dismantling of the natural management policy. Hodel announced plans to change the "let-burn policy" in national parks. He said he would order reforestation programs in the park to offset the damage of the fires. Hodel also gave support to proposals for erosion control projects and an emergency elk feeding program this winter. Since he is the boss, those plans are getting serious consideration by park managers.

The major impetus for the rehabilitation efforts come from animal protection groups, the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, and other business groups in areas surrounding the parks. Proponents of the natural management policy say that if carried out, these measures would defy the very premise on which the policy is based, that nature works best when unimpeded by man. They say that natural regulation in Yellowstone would be dead.

"Yellowstone Park is one place we can see without man's intervention," said Jerry Nielson, a Montana State University soil science professor. "How can we measure the effects of that intervention without a place like Yellowstone?"

Opponents to natural management, such as William Schilling, executive director of the Wyoming Heritage Society, a business and agriculture group, argue that Yellowstone already has been altered substantially by man. Natural regulation is based more on philosophy than sound management. "I think we are unrealistic and we try to fool ourselves when we try to make Yellowstone pristine in the 20th century," said Schilling. "You have to look at where you are in history and make compromises."

When Varley replaced Mary Meagher as supervisory biologist at Yellowstone in 1983, he inherited a research program that suffered serious credibility problems. Yellowstone scientists, convinced of the validity of the natural regulation theories, stymied independent research in the park. That changed under Varley, who organized a 10-year program of park and independent research to test the validity of the park's earlier studies. He removed natural regulation from a philosophical base to a scientific one.

But he said even earlier, the management policy was flexible, noting that the natural burning policy was installed slowly and in steps.

"I would submit the whole notion of natural regulation was always laced with a dose of common sense," said Varley, who studied fish populations in the park from 1971 until supervising all research. During 1979 and 1981, the two worst burning years before 1988 under natural management, park firefighters suppressed several natural fires when they reached the threatening stage. Those decisions were made at the highest level, said Don Despain, a park ecologist, who provided the scientific underpinnings for the natural burning policy soon after he arrived in 1971.

"No where are we more grounded in science than in our natural burning policies," Varley said.

About 19,000 elk and 700 bison compete for forage on the northern range of the park. With a portion of the range burned and all of it suffering from the stress of drought, competition this winter is expected to be keen. Only several hundred elk and buffalo died in the fires.

Varley saw little need for artificial erosion control, such as seeding. Only in the Lamar River drainage, where fire burned a significant portion of its steep-sloped banks, was there major concern for erosion.

Erosion did happen not only in Lamar Valley but along the Gibbon and in other areas. But erosion happens naturally all the time and it should not be considered inherently bad in a national park.

Despain, who had been counting seeds on burned over acres has seen dramatic seeding caused when the lodgepole pine cones were opened by the heat of the fires.

"One stand laid out more than one million seeds per acre," he said.

Despain said he is worried about the future of continuing research projects in the park if tree planting, supplemental feeding, and erosion control are implemented due to political pressure. it could end or alter experiments that have shed light on many aspects of the relatively new science of ecology.

"If we are forced into these kinds of things, there's a lot of information that will be lost," he said.

Critics in Congress, like Rep. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, warned as early as March of the potential of major fires.

He said the park should have been removing the fuel, especially around its developments.

"If you did that a quarter of a mile around these areas, then when a natural fire comes out of the part of the park managed as wilderness, you would not have the kind of problems the Park Service is experiencing now."

But Yellowstone firefighters said that once the fires got going, little would stop them. It is the ability of a fire to jump as far as two miles across any barrier that made them so hard to control.

Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyoming, said the park's "let-burn policy" led park officials to allow the fires to become unstoppable earlier in the season. Rep. Ron Marlenee, R-Montana, said park officials should have acted quicker this year after two years of drought and 80 years of fire suppression had left a powder keg of explosively dry fuel in the park.

"I believe that the policies of wilderness lands, of 'lock it up and let it burn,' is, in fact, a policy of ruin and ashes; particularly this year when conditions are extremely dry," he said.

Barbee said it is easy to be critical today with the luxury of hindsight. But he denies that he or his fire bosses made miscalculations.

"Miscalculations imply that the people that were making the calls had knowledge of what is in the future," said Barbee. "I think the judgments they made at the time were sound based on 16 years of experience."

Alston Chase, author of the bestseller "Playing God in Yellowstone," has been the strongest critic of the park's natural regulation policies for wildlife, fires and flora. He said when the agency 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 was later proved wrong by further research.

Walt Dabney, NPS chief ranger, said, "The only time that material (lodgepole pine) will burn successfully is when it's very, very dry" and there are winds to move the fire along.

"To light a fire when it's dry and windy, you're in the same situation we were in this year. It's very hard to control," he told two congressional committees. Barbee now admits next time they might not wait so long to react. "I think you have to factor in a conservative element," he said.

The Forest Service had a similar natural burning policy in its wilderness areas and on some other lands. But its guidelines for moving from a let-burn decision to suppression were generally more conservative than in national parks.

The weather was the wild card that always played against Yellowstone firefighters. In August, U.S. Weather Service forecasters predicted only two major wind storms for the entire month. There were six, including a day of 80 mph winds August 20 that bloated the fires by 100,000 acres in one day.

In fact, weather forecasters have been wrong 70 percent of the time that month, Barbee said. "Our weather predictions have not been accurate."

Yellowstone officials based their decision primarily on the advice of Despain and other fire experts. Despain based his advice on the 16 years of experience with fires in the park. "The biggest difference between this year and other years is no rain," said Despain. Another difference, he said, was the top management. Earlier superintendents, who climbed the career ladder in the agency when it was committed to suppression, were more conservative.

When fires were readily suppressed in 1979 and 1981, "someone else was in charge," Despain said.

He makes no secret he encourages natural burning. As an ecologist, researcher and one of the strongest advocates of the park's natural management philosophy, he pushed for maximum natural burning.

But it was up to people like Barbee and other managers to include the non-scientific concerns. "I'm not a politician; that's not my job," he said. "They have to add the political element."

It took a combination of three factors to keep the 1988 fires alive, said Steve Frye, a Yellowstone ranger who led several of the park's firefighting teams during the summer. "If we'd of had normal precipitation or eliminated the unprecedented winds or eliminated the extremely dry fuels, these fires would not have burned like they did," he said.

The National Park Service took the most heat for fires that burned more than 1.6 million acres in the national forests burned the majority of the acres in the area. More than 971,000 acres burned in fires that started in national forests. More than 660,000 acres burned in fires that started in Yellowstone National Park.

Whether the decisions of either managers made a difference in the size and ferocity of the fires continues to be debated. But faced with similar conditions, managers made similar calls.

But Chase said Yellowstone's faulty fire management decisions grow out of the same, almost religious, belief that nature knows best how to manage the land.

It is that belief that has led them to let lightning choose the time and place of fires, rather than base their judgments on scientific studies, he said.

"It comes down to philosophy and this strikes me as another absurdity the Park Service goes to when it tries to run its natural regulation policy," said Chase. "They start out saying let nature take its course, then bring in 3,000 firefighters and start cutting things up."

Yellowstone, its top officials and the scientists who formulated its natural burning policy were still standing five years after fires that burned a 700,000-acre swath across the park.

The fires that filled the western skies with smoke and sparked a debate about whether to allow forest fires to burn remain a subject of debate in the West and around the country. In September of 1993, scientists from across the country and Canada gathered at Mammoth Hot Springs to discuss the implications of the fires five years and a week after snow stopped the fires cold less than a mile from the park's headquarters.

The scientists presented papers on such subjects as fire history of the park, the effects of the fire on plants and animals and the economic and social effects of the fires. Most of the studies confirmed what Yellowstone's ecologists have been saying since the fires ignited in June of 1988, that animals and plant communities have adapted to the new conditions.

Despain, whose studies supported the park's natural burn policy, said that even in the most incinerated landscape of the park, young lodgepole pines are growing up through the ashes. Yellowstone cutthroat trout, birds, and large mammals also are faring well despite the fires, scientists said.

An area where trees had previously blown down near Norris Junction, burned even the top level of soil. Five years later lodgepole pine seedlings were found deep growing not only along the sides, but deep within the burned area.

Despain said there is not a 15 foot area without trees in the several hundred-acre heavily burned area. The seeds, which only are released from the lodgepole cones under extreme heat, could have brought in by small animals or birds, he surmised.

"Some may even have survived the holocaust," Despain said.

He too survived the fire storm of criticism that followed the fires, moving back from the role of fire behavior expert placed upon him during the fires. During the fires he and the nation's top fire experts were consistently proven to have underestimated the intensity of the fires.

Richard Rothermel, the U.S. Forest Service's top fire behavior specialist said they saw new conditions in Yellowstone they had never seen before. Among them, was a phenomena where the giant convection columns or clouds, which could be seen even in Idaho Falls above the fires, would collapse on themselves, creating "microbursts" of wind that would accelerate the growth of the fires.

Also, all types of fuels in the Yellowstone fires burned equally hot when the humidity dropped so low that extremely dry year.

"We underestimated because once the wind started blowing it didn't matter what forest type was there," Rothermel said.

Since 1988, tourism in the park has skyrocketed, peaking in 1995 at more than 3 million people. But University of Montana economist Michael Yuan said in a paper that visitation actually would have grown even faster had the fires not occurred. He said the region lost $60 million in potential tourism revenues between 1988 and 1990 because people stayed away from Yellowstone. "In terms of tourism, we believe there was a real loss," he said.

But David Snepenger, a Montana State University economist said accommodation tax collections in Montana rose significantly after the fires. "What this suggests to me is that people shifted some of their vacation time from Yellowstone to other parts of Montana."

The most controversial scientific debate currently in Yellowstone revolves around the decline of aspen in the park. Scientists like C.E. Kay, who was scheduled to present a paper today, say the uncontrolled size of Yellowstone's elk herd, which eats the young aspen shoots before they can grow, is responsible for the decline.

Yellowstone's scientists say the elk are only one of the many factors responsible but that aspen trees only occur under special conditions in the park. The debate was not resolved this week but both sides agree that the fires will not lead to an increase of aspen in the park.

In all there have been 250 research projects in the park following the fires. Park officials say the fires have provided the nation with a giant laboratory for research on the ecological effects of fire. Superintendent Robert Barbee said the park has successfully defended its policy of allowing some fires burn naturally across the park landscape.

"We still have a natural fire policy," Barbee said. "Nature still is a capricious mistress and we still can't control fires like those of 1988."

Outside the park, the debate has changed over the last 12 years. In 2000 in Idaho, in a matter of hours, giant fires have transformed tens of thousands of acres of forests into blackened landscapes.

As Valley County Commissioner Terry Gestrin watched the fires burn north of McCall in early August, his words reflected a common view: "It's sickening," he said.

The fires threaten homes, communities, hunting spots and favorite places for Idaho's residents and visitors. But their effects on the natural communities that evolved with regular fires through the eons are less clear.

Fire kills trees like the 600-year-old ponderosa pine that burned in the 1992 Foothills Fire on the Boise National Forest. It kills wildlife, like the herd of elk lost during fires north of McCall in 1994. Fire also kills fish, like bull trout that died in fire-heated water in Slide Gulch on the Boise National Forest in 1992.

However, fires also benefit wildlife and even fish in some cases. Fire's lasting effects, says fire ecologist Leon Neuenschwander01 of the University of Idaho, depend on the forest type and the size and frequency of the fires.

Huge infrequent fires are the inevitable and natural tool for renewing the spruce, fir and lodgepole pines forests like those north of McCall and across the northern Rockies. In the dry ponderosa pine forests of southern Idaho, like most of the Boise National Forest and much of the Salmon-Challis National Forest, small fires at 10- to 30-year intervals were the norm. However, fire suppression and selective logging that removed the largest trees changed the basic character of dry forest types where fire was frequent and of small intensity.

Now thousands of young trees have grown up around the huge orange-sided ponderosas that are the anchor species on which the health of the surrounding ecosystem rests. These smaller firs act as ladders that carry the fire into the crowns of the ponderosas, causing uncharacteristically large fires that unnaturally alter the ecosystem. "Historically, the ecological recovery time was short and immediate, " Neuenschwander said. "That's not going to happen now in those dry forests." These ponderosa pine forests, which spread from Arizona north to Idaho, are now burning with increasing severity that is reshaping millions of acres across the West.

On the Boise National Forest, an average of only 3,000 acres of forest burned each year from 1955 to 1985. Since 1986, that average has exceeded 56,000 acres burned annually.

The slow recovery is evident on the slopes around Lowman where fire burned through thick ponderosa stands in 1989. Even the North Fork of the Boise River suffered significant degradation after the 1994 Rabbit Gulch Fire, said Tim Burton, a U.S. Forest Service biologist in Boise. However, fisheries impacts like those seen on the Boise River are the exception, not the rule. Erosion frequently sends sediment into rivers after fires. But most streams recover quickly -- within five years, Burton said. David Burns, a Forest Service fisheries biologist in McCall, has studied the effects of large fires for several decades in the spruce-fir forest streams of the Payette National Forest. The erosive sediment after fires tends to be courser and actually beneficial to rivers. The floods that often follow act to cleanse the river systems of the fine sediment that choke off spawning grounds and fill in holding pools where fish can rest. "The large scale events -- floods and fires -- are how the system works," Burns said. Small streams can be damaged temporarily, but the fish can usually go elsewhere. One exception is the bull trout of the Weiser River, which are isolated from other populations of the endangered char. A fire that wipes out their home there would drive them into extinction.

Since elk and deer can move around, their populations are rarely hurt by fires. In the long run, fires like those in the 1930s on the Clearwater River actually improve their habitat. But specialized species like pine marten, goshawks, grizzly bears and lynx that need old growth and other rarer forest habitats can be harmed when fire destroys the little habitat they have left, said Lynn Bennett, a Forest Service ecologist.

Since fire is inevitable and even ecologically desirable in the Engleman spruce forests north of McCall, the decisions are easier for David Alexander, Payette National Forest supervisor. He doubts his team of firefighters could stop the continuing Burgdorf Junction Fire blaze no matter what he threw at it. So he can save taxpayers' money and, more importantly, risk fewer lives by keeping them out of the way. "You could do far more damage to the ecosystem through your suppression techniques than the fire will." Alexander said. "It makes no sense to tear the country up to fight a fire that is inevitable."

More than a decade of highly publicized blazes has changed public attitudes about wildfire. Nicola Potts, the owner of the Coffee Grinder in Ketchum, remembered how she felt about the Yellowstone blazes in 1988. She saw some of her favorite scenic vistas destroyed.

"That was one of the most traumatic times in my life," Potts recalls. "But when I went back a few years later and everything was growing back, you knew it was going to be OK."