Naturalist’s Notes:

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A Walk on Badger Mountain, Lessons in Forest Fire Recovery

By Beth Dodd

Recently, I went for a hike on Badger Mountain near Wilkerson Pass on US 24. I was enjoying the solitude when I began to notice hints of past disaster. In 1978, a severe fire had scorched the area. Since then, a forest of remarkable beauty and variety has grown where the mountain once burned. It made me think about the blackened slopes on the north side of Ute Pass left by the Waldo Canyon Fire, and what they will look like thirty-five years from now.

On Badger Mountain, the slopes to the north of the highway are cloaked with an evergreen forest. Even in the mid-winter, birds call in the trees, and grassy meadows provide views of Pikes Peak to the east. As I explored the mountain on my recent visit, I noticed some unusual things about the forest. Between the tall green trees, there were many snags or old, dead trees. For the most part, these dead trees were larger than the living trees. Some had fallen over and were rotting, returning slowly to the earth. Others were still standing tall, but their blackened trunks told their story.

The 1978 fire on Badger Mountain was not large by today’s standards, but it was intense, killing most of the trees in what is referred to as a “stand replacing fire.” Ironically, a fire lookout tower had been removed from the mountain just a few years earlier around 1974. This fire and other Colorado wildfires from the same period were the subjects of forest research in 2008. The researchers were investigating how the forest recovers after such an apparently devastating event.

Incredibly, they discovered that species richness, or the number and abundance of different plants in the burn areas, had roughly doubled in the three decades since the fires. The diversity of the renewed plant community will in turn support a larger and more diverse collection of wildlife.

Forest fires rarely burn everything in their path, but more often hop-scotch through the landscape. The intensity of a fire can go from a mild understory fire to a wild treetop crowning fire. It depends on things like the shape of the land, the amount of fuel that has built up over time, the kinds of plants and trees that live there, and how dry or windy it is during the fire.

The result after a fire is greater variety in the landscape. For example, where trees have been destroyed, new meadows will form. With fewer trees around, more sunlight reaches the ground and grasses and other small plants flourish. More food becomes available to herbivores like mice, rabbits, and deer, which in turn feed predators like snakes, foxes, and hawks.

The surviving trees and shrubs around the edges of a burn provide seeds to colonize the site, while the surviving roots of trees and plants inside the burn area will soon re-grow. For example, sun-loving aspens recover quickly, sprouting from their extensive root systems. The seedlings of ponderosa pine trees also thrive in the sunlight. Later, shade-tolerant species like spruces and firs will sprout in the cool of the aspen groves.

Ashes and dead wood fertilize the soil, providing nutrients for new plant growth after a fire, while dead trees provide homes for wildlife. For example, cavity nesting birds like chickadees and mountain bluebirds may make their home in a hole in a dead tree. Small creatures like insects, grubs, spiders, worms, and millipedes can make their homes in decaying wood and become an important food source for other animals.

But life is not all a Disney movie inside a burn scar. In a large, severe burn, the interior recovers more slowly, since sources of new plant and animal life are farther away. A severe fire can damage the soil itself, baking it into a water-resistant crust and killing hidden seeds that would have helped the forest grow back. Erosion, flash-flooding, and damage to waterways are concerns as well, as the people of Manitou Springs can attest. However, the land will recover with time. Fire is a necessary ecological process, the ultimate primordial force for recycling and turning back the clock in the natural world.

One way to recognize the importance of fire in the landscape is to look at what happens in a forest without it. Historically, ponderosa pine forests like the ones that burned in the Waldo Canyon Fire and the Black Forest Fire would experience small fires every 10 to 25 years. These fires clear out fuels like dead grass, shrubs, and fallen tree branches while leaving the bigger trees relatively unharmed. They also thin out the young trees starting to grow. The result is an open “park-like” area with a large variety of smaller plants and grasses able to grow in the openings between mature trees.

Without regular small fires, the floor of a pine forest can become choked with debris and dead wood. Many scraggly young trees compete for space and light. A forest like this is difficult to move through and fewer grasses and other plants are able to survive there. Then when a fire happens, it is much more likely to become catastrophic, burning vast areas and destroying mature trees and soil.

In the future when you see the Waldo Canyon burn scar, remember the lessons of Badger Mountain. It will take some time, but eventually the slopes above Ute Pass and Colorado Springs will be covered in a renewed forest full of life.