SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (AP) — A recent lawsuit filed to prevent the U.S. Forest Service from logging in a swath of burned Sierra forest turns on a premise that would make Smokey Bear spin in disbelief. Namely, that fire can be good, even vital.
Chad Hanson, the executive director of the Earth Island Institute's John Muir Project, is among a growing number of scientists who argue that burned forests are ecologically significant, and were a much more prevalent part of a healthy Western landscape before full-scale wildfire fighting took root in the 20th century.
But the idea advanced by Hanson and the lawsuit — that the blackened forest should be left to its own regeneration — is not an easy sell in the tourist mecca of Lake Tahoe, where 250 homes were destroyed in a June 2007 south shore blaze.
The Forest Service contends that logging and restoration is necessary to prevent a similar fire in the future. And many residents who live near the cobalt blue lake on the California-Nevada line want their landscape green again as quickly as possible.
The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento by the institute and others claims there's no threat the burned over land will ignite again for at least a decade, long after the forest will be well on its way to regenerating naturally.
In fact, tiny saplings started poking up through the brush within a year after the fire, and as of last fall the charred landscape was teeming with insects and birds.
"We have this cultural aversion, this cultural prejudice that goes back to Smokey Bear and Bambi," said Hanson, an associate researcher in fire ecology at the University of California-Davis. "We've been taught in our culture to think this is destroyed. But ecologically speaking, nothing could be further from the truth."
The Associated Press reviewed hundreds of pages of research papers related to the conflict over the logging project and its potential impact on wildlife, including the rare black-backed woodpecker, which prefers burned-over sites. An AP reporter and photographer toured the Tahoe fire site three times during the past 18 months.
Richard Hutto, a biology professor and director of the Avian Science Center at the University of Montana in Helena, has been at the forefront of much of the research dating to the early 1990s.
"People think a burned forest is devastation, destruction, horror and all the words that go with it," Hutto said. "But that is because most of the public past and present doesn't have a clue about all the interesting stuff in there — things that occur in these burned forests that don't occur anywhere else."
Rodney Siegel, executive director of the Institute for Bird Populations and its Sierra Bird Observatory in Point Reyes Station, Calif., has done significant research for the Forest Service in recent years specifically on the black-backed woodpecker in the Sierra, and its aversion to post-fire logging.
"It is a very new concept to even be treating this as an ecosystem that needs monitoring," said Siegel of the burned forest. "It is a new paradigm that has emerged and is still emerging."
Walking through the forest with Hanson, what at first appeared to be a charred wasteland came to life.
"You can already hear more birds," he said, as the trail ascended a hill into the more severely burned landscape. Woodpeckers, jays, flycatchers and others zipped around the standing snags, over downed logs and beneath the remaining bits of unburned forest canopy.
"It's sort of counterintuitive, which is interesting to me as an ecologist," Hanson said, "but as fire intensity goes up, so does the abundance of wildlife and the wildlife diversity."
Victoria Saab, a research biologist at the USDA Rocky Mountain Research Station, in Bozeman, Mont., is a leading expert nationally on woodpeckers and fire-burned habitat.
"There is so much biodiversity after a wildfire," she said. "It is valuable to soils, invertebrates, flowers, trees, birds, so many different species. It's not just black-backed woodpeckers. They just happen to be sort of the flagship species because they are so strongly tied to those post-fire habitats."
The Forest Service designated the black-backed woodpecker as the management indicator species for burned forests in the Sierra Nevada in 2007. It's the same tag the northern spotted owl carried in the Pacific Northwest logging debate as a tool to monitor the overall health of the ecosystem — a "canary in the coal mine," as agency officials say.
Hutto said similarities in the evolution of the science are uncanny.
"With old growth, we decided there was something fairly unique about it because some things seem to be relatively restricted to those conditions and if we remove those conditions, where else are these things going to be?" Hutto said.
Monica Bond, a wildlife biologist now doing work for the Center for Biological Diversity, was involved with some of the first studies that began to establish in the past decade that while spotted owls are highly dependent on mature old-growth for nesting, they also hunt for prey in burned forests. In fact they prefer the burned forest for hunting, when given the choice.
"The old growth is in effect the bedroom and the burned forest the kitchen," she said.
Forest Service officials say the Angora Fire logging project enjoys the support of most local residents, especially those who lost their homes three years ago.
Larry and Paula Lambdin were among the first to rebuild after the fire and were back in their new home by June 2008. Still, the charred landscape is a frightful reminder of the beauty of the forest they cherished.
"From our house, we look out our front door and this whole ridge is just blackened trees. It is terrible," Larry Lambdin said.
"We realize it is going to take decades but we really want to see this area brought back to what it was. But I guess I'm sad to see somebody trying to keep us from making those improvements. It would be too bad if we can't remove some of those trees so the newer trees will have a better chance to survive."
Unlike most post-fire logging projects, the one at Tahoe is intended solely to reduce fuels and improve overall forest health, and not produce timber for sale, Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Heck said.
"Without some additional live tree thinning, some stands will remain too dense, leaving them susceptible to insects and disease," Heck said. Dead trees — snags — "already are falling on a daily basis in the fire area, and this will grow as a problem as more decay and weaken."
In addition to increased fuel loads, downed logs would complicate efforts to fight future wildfires on the ground, she said. At the same time, Heck said they don't believe the logging poses a threat to wildlife, including the black-backed woodpecker.
"We are confident that the proposal, which leaves 1,168 acres untreated to provide diverse vegetation and wildlife habitat, addresses the habitat needs of the black-backed woodpecker," she said.
The Forest Service acknowledges the emerging science of burned forest service ecology, with one key official saying more fire is needed on the landscape. But, said Jay Jensen, the deputy U.S. agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment in charge of the Forest Service, protection of communities and homes remains paramount.
Hanson, meanwhile, said the agency's Tahoe environmental reviews are flawed.
He believes the Forest Service badly underestimated the amount of forest habitat needed to support a pair of the black-backed woodpeckers as well as the number of pairs needed to support a population in the Tahoe basin. He said the agency's plans would eliminate 70 percent of all existing priority habitat for the species in the area.
The Forest Service has stated the bird's population is "stable" throughout the Sierra, something Hanson said is both irrelevant and "wildly inaccurate."
Hanson said more recent studies suggest the current suitable habitat throughout the entire Sierra can support only a few hundred pairs, "far, far below the levels at which populations are not at significant risk of extinction."
Siegel, who has done more research than anyone on black-backed woodpeckers in the Sierra, said he thinks the numbers of black-backs could reach into the thousands.
"There is no question in my mind that they do exist in unburned forests in California," Siegel said, "but they are dramatically more abundant in burned areas." That's because of the smorgasbord of beetles and bugs just a peck away in dead and dying trees.
Back at the Angora site in one of the most severely burned parts of the forest on a hill behind South Lake Tahoe High, Hanson spots one of the black-backeds and is moving upslope for a better look. It's within a mile or two from where the Lambdins watched their home go up in flames almost four years ago.
"I've talked to a lot of people who initially think this is ugly," Hanson said. "But once they learn about it and all the biological diversity, they begin to see it as beautiful."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.