Sunday, August 10, 2014

How do ecosystems regenerate when Fire is absent ? Aw, the possibilities!

Contrary to false religious doctrines by the modern Scientific Orthodoxy, FIRE is not the grand creator of life on Earth
Image - Tormod Sandtorv (Smithsonian Magazine)

Image -  WBTW
Whatever! Now back to fire ecology and the question about just how do various plant communities proceed without fire ? If you believe half of the fire ecology myths out there, the world's plant kingdom cannot survive without the intervention of creative powers of wildfire. I don't want to rehash all the ideological takes the usual Soothsayers out there publish, but I'm more interested in evidence of how forests and other plant communities make it successfully without fire. On that note I also believe there are better practical applications which can be had from learning just how these ecosystem really function for practical purpose of replication in the field of habitat restoration. Even speaking about this subject at all is a form of blasphemy to the Scientific Orthodoxy which appoints itself as keeper of Flame when it comes to everything Forestry. You all know how many of the fables go, "without fire some plants are doomed and cannot germinate to proceed on with life". While numerous plants certainly do have built-in programs for a massive scale rehab response to wildfire habitat destruction, this is NOT the only strategy Nature employs.

image USGS , Grizzly eating Limber Pine Nuts
Well well well, so Mission Manzanita seedlings didn't need fire to germinate after all ? Equally puzzling is how they can germinate during such a time as the present drought. But his last comment on possible food consumption by California Grizzly Bears is more than likely not so far fetched. Although no Grizzlies exist in San Diego, they do have Coyotes which are known to eat Manzanita berries. The Grizzlies in Yellowstone make a meal of Whitebark Pinecones, otherwise known by many as the Limber Pine. Closest Limber Pine populations I personally know of in Southern California are on Santa Rosa Mountains at El Toro Peak above Palm Desert. Most all Bears forage lots of seeds, nuts and berries for food in the wild. So those folks who have a true genuine interest in actual ecology should wonder and ponder just exactly what it is that is missing when these large foraging animals disappear from ecosystems. For example, in Fire Ecology lore, there is a fire label created to describe a variety of trees which seemingly refuse to release their seeds unless wildfire bulls it's way through. These ecosystems as labeled as a closed cone forest systems. The trees which fall into this human created list are Cypress, Knobcone Pines, Sequoia, etc. But often times such lists are used by those who are intent on profiting off a forest system where more desirable trees like Ponderosa and other Timber valuable trees are wanted. The use of fire in a so-called controlled or prescribed burn are said necessary for such closed cone trees to regenerate, but the reality they often simply want land clearance for other more Timber salable trees to be planted and maintained for future harvest. One could ponder about fascinating trees like the Knobcone and if large animals like Grizzly or even giant Ground Sloths with their large claws didn't forage through such groves releasing cones for nuts, with some of the seed being scattered in the wind only to catch attention of ever watchful Scrubjays or other birds to snatch up and quickly hide away as many seeds as possible. Forgetting all the hiding places which allows some seeds to successfully germinate and reach for the sky in a slow movement of forest creation independent of the often Fire Ecology ONLY scenario we are mostly spoon fed as the ONLY fact. We'll never truly know the exact truth of the matter about what effect they had on the landscape since humans for the most part caused them to go extinct from their former range. But such giant vegetarians as the Sloths could well have had a great impact as did the Grizzlies. Pine Nuts were clearly a large part of their diet as fossilized or mummified Sloth poop has revealed. (source) But again, these animals are long gone and cannot be studied other than a few clues left behind to fuel anyone's imagination and speculative assumptions, even mine. But below is something I can relate to as far as a living example of forest regeneration without the fire dogma. 
Momentary observation & opinion about Manzanita 
Okay, I'm not really interested in pursuing Manzanita and Fire Ecology at this time, except to say that in my experience with the outdoors, I have seen many  situations other than the occurrence of fire as being the reason for Manzanita seed germinating out in the wild without human interference. Living up in the San Jacinto Mountains for almost 20+ years, where ever I went I found Manzanita germinating from seed in any numerous of situation which didn't require fire. Mostly land clearing, or road building which provided loose soil bank access for the new seedlings to grow. In many methodical chaparral clearing by hand which created open spaces, I found that both Manzanita and Sugarbush would appear.
So when I first became curious about written sources which So when I first became curious about written sources which insisted germination ONLY happens after fire & a generally ignorant public parroting this all over the Internet championing the need for regular wildfire as a good thing, it all made me step back and take pause to review what I saw. Not that I questioned what I saw [that was for a fact real], but I started looking for other reasons why this would occur. But perhaps California Grizzly Bears did eat Mission Manzanita Berries over a century ago which helped that coastal shrub regenerate. Not out of the realm of possibility because many bears and other animals do this anyway as my reference above to the Coyote scat loaded with Manzanita Berries which I found on the South Fork Trail of the San Jacinto Riverproved. In fact just a few feet away was a young Bigberry Manzanita Seedling pushing up through a Chamise or Greasewood shrub on the same trail. Now, onto Cypress seed germination!
This Mystic insistence on Fire & Cypress Seed Germination
Take this large mature Arizona Cypress at my friend's place in Anza California for example. As you can see it has almost all of the branches from it's youth stretching all the way to the ground. Beautiful healthy tree and yet, would you believe it's propagating itself all over this property as far as a tiny cypress seed can drift in the wind ? Now considering some of the stories we are treated with regard to Cypress forests needing FIRE to open up their tough resinous closed cones, one wonders why there are so many examples of seed germination and sapling successes everywhere when fire doesn't occur. Oddly enough I found the fire myth to be untrue all around my friend's place. Several one, two and three years old seedlings were everywhere. But first, here is what one official US Forest Service database has to say about Arizona Cypress regeneration:
"The Serotinous*(see footnote) cones of Arizona cypress persist on the tree for years. When opened by the heat of a fire, the seeds fall on the exposed mineral soil, producing thickets of seedlings."

Image Mine
Both photos here above and below where the seedlings are shown emerging and healthy are around and near a continual flow of irrigation dripline for the large Hybrid Cottonwood trees which are half dead anyway. Most of these hybrids are in major decline throughout Anza anyway, but my friend waters his just the same. The point however being is not that the constant and dependable source of water is helping these trees to germinate, but that the seeds are available all around the area without this  mystic insistence that fire is needed to release them from those serotinous cones which many an ideologue out there dogmatically insist are dependent on fire for mechanical release. To their credit, the source did say that cones will open if detached from trees or if tree dies. But there is no indication of that here with that large Arizona Cypress. In any event, no fire, no heat, no smoke, etc. So what's happened ?
Image Mine
The bottom image here is of an Arizona Cypress seedling that is the furthest away from the parent tree in the picture above and has no drip irrigation helping it along. It is approximately some 25 meters from the tree and volunteered on it's own near this ranch's junk pile near some sheds and other out buildings and I must say it's on the western side of the parent tree which would make the western prevailing winds a preventative obstacle to the direction of seed drift. Unless of course hot drying Santa Ana Winds from the northeast are the answer here for not only wind direction from east to west, but also influencing a softening of the resin mechanisms on some exposed cones and release of some seed. Hmmm, again, pondering the possibilities. I'm mean it is Anza and that allows for lots of day dreaming and meditation. *smile*
Image Mine
Of course the same fire ecology lore is also often insisted upon when describing Tecate Cypress in and around San Diego County. Take note of what is said by the same official US Forest Service source:
"Tecate cypress is a fire-adapted, fire-dependent species.  It exhibits adaptations that indicate "strict dependence on fires of a particular frequency".  These adaptations include serotinous cones * see footnote, resinous foliage that is highly flammable when dry, thin bark, and a mixed chaparral habitat that ensures heavy fuels and a fuel ladder into the canopy when trees are at their reproductive peak (age 40+ years)."
Artist Thom Sawyer
Again, take note of the insistence that fire is imperative to the Tecate Cypress' survival & spread. Also, note the reference to these trees almost seeming to struggle for life as a result of living within the heavily mixed chaparral plant community ? The reference once again to this plant community which they always without fail associate the terminology of "heavy fuel loads". Is there no one working for the Department of Forestry who are capable of writing a better well rounded explanation of the entire plant community mutually helping each other through a normal plant succession sequence of events, without demonizing one group in favour of another ? The very reason the Cypress survive to successful maturity is because of the far deeper rooted chaparral plant community. Tecate Cypress are well known for being very shallow rooted in youth and putting on more top growth than rooting infrastructure. The Chaparral also act as an important natural tree staking mechanism and wind protection blind. Anyone who has ever tried growing these trees for the landscape understands the challenges of staking and wind protection to keep them from blowing over when young. Trust me I've done it prior to moving to Sweden. Lost all but one tree to wind fall. They simply put on too much top growth which out paces underground root structure. Chaparral can and does regulate their performance. So there is far more going on here than mere water and nutrient support. It just strikes me though that when people, especially Forest experts who are supposed to know better, demonize a specific plant community in favour of a more desirable Forest setting, they are condemning the exact plant community that kick starts and regulates an entire process for gradual plant community succession towards eventual forest development.
"Before this age, the biomass of the community is lower, and there is considerably less dead material in and under the canopy. At about age 40 years, the cypress begin completely overtopping the shrub species, limiting the availability of light to the shrubs. This period, when the base of the cypress canopy is at about the same level as the top of the shrub canopy, is the time of greatest flammability in the stand. At 80 postfire years, stand flammability may decrease because a closed-canopy stand of Tecate cypress, almost devoid of an understory, develops."
The description below here of just how the Tecate Cypress ecosystem operates is also inaccurate. I never really truly started to pay close attention to the Fire Ecology literature until the late 1990s and only then did I question it because of my two previous decades experience of seeing the exact opposite of what they dogmatically insist happens. Every single time I went into the Tecate Cypress bush, I always observed Seedlings, but thought nothing of it as extraordinary. The same fact exists regarding other seedling occurrences like Pines and Oaks were normal and nothing seemed out of the ordinary with Tecate Cypress seedlings growing within the Chaparral plant community itself. I also often found numerous dead seedlings, but that was due to the damping off mentioned below. That's okay because pathogens which cause damping off are necessary for keeping the balance, otherwise we'd have no healthy old growth forest if every single tree survived to live. We'd have only stunted trees looking more like thick weeds than mature stands of a woodland. What their presence indicated ultimately is that no FIRE was required, and there are important reasons for this which I'll deal with at the end.
"Cypress seeds require bare mineral soil for germination and establishment. Seedling mortality is high on shaded sites with abundant litter because of damping-off fungi. Seedlings are sensitive to excessive moisture."
Image Mine
Mature Tecate Cypress Forest Groves on Guatay Mountain as seen 
from Old US Hwy 80 halfway between Cuyamaca 79 turn off and town site of Guatay.

I didn't have the time and patience at the end of my two month visit to San Diego County to climb partly up Guatay Mountain through Bush Whacking to old growth Tecate Cypress Forest to photo shoot examples of seedling germination & growth within the old growth Chaparral here. But of all places in San Diego County, this is the spot to prove the mysterious not supposed to happen phenomena in Nature which doesn't happen without fire. The reason this is the best place is because this specific mountain has not burned in a few hundred years according to all the local legends. The other odd thing one would find here crawling through the bush is not only living and dead seedlings, but also trees of many different ages over long periods of time. As Fore Ecology logic would tells us, all Tecate Cypress trees should be of almost same identical age when the sprout after the fire to an area a few hundred years ago. The presences of many sizes over several decades would seem to debunk this religious dogma also. BTW, this photo is along Old Hwy US 80 between the Hwy 79 junction to Cuyamaca and Julian in the west and downtown community of Guatay to the east. There always was a trail from this spot up to the first trees and the last time I visited in 2002, someone had made clean neat cuts along the trail to make it easier to follow. The only other easy location to view constant year after year germination of Tecate Cypress was at Wildcat Spring along the western face of Cuyamaca Peak on Boulder Creek Road, but that is no doubt gone after the 2003 Cedar Fire. I had wanted to see what has become of the trees and regeneration there, but again no time and that rental in the photo would not have made the journey. Another area which also is gone is an area west of Alpine California called Peutz Valley. Years ago many new adventurous rural property owners purchased some native plants back in the 1970s when they started becoming the rage. Back then I believe even LA Moran in Davis California was growing and providing them for folks who wanted to practice backcountry conservation on their land. Some purchased and planted Tecate Cypress as windbreaks or privacy screens. Several years later I read an article that some folks began noticing them naturalizing out there in the native Chaparral away from the properties which the originals were planted. Wow, so I did that happen minus Fire ? That was the first thing I wondered, since I had heard an early rumor fire was necessary. Okay, here are some other recent scenarios I have come across. Amazing how you can still discover some new things that were always right under your nose all alone.
Photo Mine

Carmel Highlands viewpoint just south of Carmel Highlands General Store on Cabrillo Hwy along California coast

Most of you will recognize this area which is near Monterey & Carmel by the Sea in California along Hwy 1 or the Cabrillo Highway and it's poster namesake the Monterey Cypress. My wife and I drove down Ocean Avenue in downtown Carmel all the way to the Ocean. Admittedly I was impatient because I was thinking of time constraints for making our way to Morro Bay by early evening and at the same time stopping and lingering at numerous locations we wanted to see along the way and avoiding any possible traffic delays. But I'm glad she forced me to go back to Carmel and here is why. While taking photographs of Monterey Cypress, I noticed a all to familiar insect anomaly I had been concerned with on my own Tecate Cypress back at my old property in Anza California over a decade ago. Have any of you ever seen anything like this on either Cypress or Junipers before ? I had and this little insect caused this unsightly cosmetic anomaly on my Tecate Cypress trees, of which there is only one left on my old property right on Burnt Valley Road. The insect is called a Twig Pruner or another name of a similar insect which attacks branch tips on Cypress and Junipers is Twig Girdler. One is a caterpillar and the other a tiny beetle. More on that below. About all I thought was how similar this was to my tree in Anza and that is where I would have left it had I not scene this next scene below.

Photo Mine

Monterey Cypress with Twig Pruner damage 

Tecate Cypress - Burnt Valley Rd, Anza
Wow, suddenly all sorts of light bulbs turned on. Could this insect phenomena be responsible for the release of Cypress seeds everywhere which when blown by gentle breezes or high wind storms the tiny little seeds which create pioneering opportunities for further Tecate Cypress spread deeper into untouched virgin old growth Chaparral regions without the need for wildfire ? Again, wow, this is so kool. Previously when up on Guatay Mountain, and when inside and underneath the canopy of the old growth Tecate Cypress forest, I heard and saw a little brown/grey bird [never really identified what bird] over head in mature Tecate Cypress actually pecking at the cones. Hence it was easy to assume that this was a possible source of cone opening and seed release which explained the seedlings everywhere in the old growth chaparral. I still believe in that possibility, but now, here's a new worldview shaking wrinkle in the scriptural text of the sacred Fire Ecology bible. Ed Komarek are you reading this ? Yes, I'm a heretic. Prone to writing all sorts of blasphemous apostate ideas against the holy writings of Fire Ecology. Sorry, I don't mean to poke fun, okay, well yes I maybe do, but only in the sense of re-education and clearer understanding which sheds brighter light on a subject that just might just help & improve habitat restoration techniques for greater successes in the field [or urban landscape]. This year my wife and I spoke with my former French neighbour who now lives in Saunders old Geodesic Dome house across the street from my old property and this Tecate Cypress you see above right. He mentioned that he paid attention to that insect twig pruning damage and at one point thought the tree was a goner a couple years back. But oddly enough, even during this drought, that tree's foliage has actually sprang back with a vengeance and looks fuller and lusher than ever before. This tree always had issues with this weevil, but not overly so. Interestingly, when I planted this tree as a seedling, it grew fast and trunk and branches very thin and leggy. But these little critters seemed to plague it so. But my response was never to locate some science-based chemical pesticide to kill and obliterate whatever was causing the twig end loss. If it died it died.  But what I did later notice is that the insects caused the tree to constantly re-sprout in newer areas along it's branches where it actually resulted in a more thicker denser foliage than it previously did. Sometimes I wonder if there are other things going on under the ground creating the same scenario. Hmmm ?

Photos courtesy of USDA Forest Service, Southwestern Region
This photo above is EXACTLY what I always found on my Tecate Cypress up in Anza. At the point of twig break, there was always this little tiny tube. Also a few down in El Cajon which I planted at Starlight Mobile Home Park, but not many. While some of these insect are often a caterpillar or worm inside the pithy region in the center of the twig, the precise little guy I always found when I split the center of the dead or dying twig looking for the little critter responsible for the die back, was similar to this little guy picture at the left here. This isn't the exact insect, but body plan is pretty much identical and the ones I found were always without fail the size of a Flax Seed if anyone knows what that is. In many ways it looked very much like a weevil and almost everyone has seen those. Still, I'll try and correct this if someone can pinpoint exactly what I am describing. But this is as close as I can come for the moment. I have a reference below here of the Juniper Twig Pruner which is a native to the southwest and they have a few more photographs which very much tell the same story. 
New Mexico State University: "Juniper twig pruner (Styloxus bicolor)"
Ultimately, irrespective of the actual identification of this insect, beetle/weevil, the after effects are interesting and revealing of some incredible possibilities never before written about that I can find. I only question things for which I have experience with which don't jive with the flawed conventional beliefs found inside official textbooks on this subject of fire ecology. In many of the same official fire ecology and Forestry archives, they also mention Giant Redwood trees and how fire suppression has hurt these magnificent Redwood Groves and the majestic trees within. Actually that's another fable. Around the internet recently people have been publishing a series of 15 historical photos which have gone viral, you see them everywhere. Take a look at both and the description I'll quote word for word below.

Image: Humbolt State University
"California lumberjacks work on Redwoods.  Thousands of tree rings in these ancient trees - each over 1000+ years old or even much older...such a shame...irreplaceable giants. National park treasures all gone but a few? What kind of men would do such a thing for over 100 years - destroy something they cannot ever fix or replace for 2000 years? It is an evergreen, long-lived, monoecious tree living 1200?1800 years or more. An estimated 95% or more of the original old-growth redwood forest has been cut. In 1850, old-growth redwood forest covered more than 2,000,000 acres...down to 8,100 acres by 1968, by which time nearly 90% of the original redwood trees had been logged."
Image: Humbolt State University

Fire suppression has hurt old growth Redwood Forests, human corporate greed has done that. Did you notice what was said about the cause for the reduction and decline of old growth redwood forests ? Here it is again: An estimated 95% or more of the original old-growth redwood forest has been cut. While it's true that fire can open cones as we all know, given ancient Redwood Trees age over countless thousands of years, wouldn't it be reasonable to believe other factors also may have spread young newly germinated Redwood Trees across the landscape ? Douglas Squirrels and other wildlife are great candidates. Given the belief of these once pristine Redwood Forests and the Fossil records which show just how extensive many types of Redwoods once were over 1000s upon 1000s of millennia, it's reasonable to assume more than fire has had a play in their survival and development, especially given the fact that most ancient forests were so wet. The not so ancient Megafauna which were killed by indigenous North America tribal peoples most likely played the biggest rle. Plants and animals need more interactions for the benefit of each other. The moment you hear someone dogmatically insisting such and such is the only way things happen, it's a cue for they don't have all the facts and wouldn't want them anyway, even if they do exist at all. Here is a great link for those interested in some historical research on Redwood ecology. Though it's title enlists fire ecology, it's got other clues which should lead one to understand that not all knowledge is presently etched in stone.

Just when we all get told most everything on earth has pretty much been found and discovered, we get amazing surprises even still which should be no real surprise at all. Given the sad state of affairs we are presently experiencing on our planet with regard the Earth's poor health, clearly Science doesn't know everything after all. Yes it's nice and wonderful when science self-corrects, but it means zero if no practical application is made from the newer findings. When outside business interests try and squelch such observations as little account, those entities need serious removal. Seriously now, think about that. Finally, I'm not saying fire never happens or is not part of the natural landscape. Clearly it's been around since the beginning of time. It can also be used responsibly as a restoration tool if for the proper motives. But the problem lays with those who have motives of disinformation comes to the surface. I'm presently reading an account of a fire ecologists who insist Global Warming has nothing to do with increases in fire and that Sweden and other remote Boreal forests are wildfire adapted. Funny, I, nor anyone else here have ever experienced that. Right now the News reports are that this megafire in Sweden won't totally burn out until winter, that's because it's moving and burning under the ground. For those who are not familiar with Boreal Forest environments and peat ecosystems, there is a tremendous amount of organic matter in these systems and these mosses lichens and deep peat layers have dried out and burn easily. Again, commercial ambitions under the cloak of Fire Ecology are a major reason for our Natural World's decline and we're running out of healthy forests. No amount of genetic engineering by SweTree or ArborGen are going to save anything here.
"Make sure all your words are soft and sweet, you may have to come back one day to them eat"  
Serotinous is an ecological adaptation exhibited by some seed plants, in which seed release occurs in response to an environmental trigger, rather than spontaneously at seed maturation. The most common and best studied trigger is fire, and the term serotiny is often used to refer to this specific case.


  1. I tried some detective work on your girdler and posted my answer on my blog's comment area...

    Funny to hear reference to Jon Keeley, as my old classmate and grad school colleague Keith S. interacted with him at Occidental College and Keeley obviously made a big impression on him. Keith and I spent a LOT of hours driving around to and from field sites, and in the field, and I heard MANY stories about the personality and behavior of Keeley!

    1. I like Jon Keeley, though I have never met him in person. Most of what I know about him comes via Richard Halsey who I made the fictional character of the "Bishop of Aquilegia". I also wrote a post about Santa Rosa Mountain and two conflicting studies done about the plants moving up in elevation in the Santa Rosa Mountains. Jon Keeley & his colleague were correct on their take as to fire influencing changes on the mountain as opposed to the other study done by Anne Kelly & Mike Goulden. They believed air pollution caused changes in plant dislocation or relocation up the mountainside and Keeley & Dylan Schwilk attributed more to fire. I was interested because of having explored that area for over 20+ years, so I knew exactly what areas were being talked about.

      When I first moved there, All of the northern face of Thomas Mountain and Western & partial southern face of Santa Rosa Mountain were loaded with dead forest snags everywhere. Today those all all mostly gone and of course all memory of forest existing at lower elevations is gone as well. What this does is allow the usual story telling that there were no forests there for thousands of years. This is a lie, it was not all that long ago. There were two major historic fires, both started by the Cahuilla Indians on Santa Rosa Indian Reservation which destroyed lower elevation Santa Rosa Mountain and Thomas Mountain forests around 1909 I believe and further obliterated the entire recovery back in 1948. Below is what I wrote about that.

      Santa Rosa Mountains & Climate Change - Will Anyone Pay Attention ?


  2. Every time I learn something new, I sit back and watch whatever party-line never seems to learn anything new - they just re-hash. Interesting how it comes down to balance, not *just* fire, but many other mechanisms, to keep plants growing in the wild. Animals moving seeds, check. Even people doing moving seed is no less natural, but that's where the old guard often draw the line.

    Great info on Tecate Cypress, which I will look for from the road next time in San Diego County. I vaguely remember that Guatay Mtn stand from the road, not thinking what those conifers were. The natural tree-staking of the adjacent chaparral makes sense, too.


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