In July 2002, a bolt of lightning ignited the Burn Canyon fire, which grew to become the largest naturally caused wildfire in Colorado history, with over 31,000 acres of National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, state and private lands burned. Following the fire, plans including erosion control, reseeding and replanting trees were made for recovery of the area
But when salvage logging was proposed, controversy erupted even within the environmentalist community, with some charging that salvage logging would inhibit recovery and others suggesting it offered a prime opportunity for logging an area in the midst of a recovery.
And so, in the absence of data regarding the effects of salvage logging on a forest’s recovery, the Burn Canyon Community Monitoring Project was created to ascertain whether or not there was a significant difference in vegetation cover and composition between logged and unlogged areas.
For the study, part of the recovery area was logged, with 27 permanent transects of land established and monitored, in both logged and unlogged areas. From 2003 to 2007, these transects were monitored by retired forester Phil Miller.
Due to lack of funding and volunteers, the monitoring project stalled out until 2011, when Peggy Lyon, of the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Fort Lewis College intern Skyler Hollinbeck and botanist Barry Johnson volunteered to collect and analyze more data.
“In general, it appears that the area is recovering well, with few non-native species, an overall increase in vegetation cover and a decrease in bare soil,” according to the report. “Differences readily observed between 2007 and 2011 were the decrease in standing dead [burned] trees and an increase in downed trees. There was an increase in wood on the ground, and in cover of Gambel oak. Many of the young trees that were planted following the fire were found to be growing and healthy.”
The study found that vegetation of all categories had increased in 2011, compared to previous years, in both logged and unlogged areas; shrub cover has been consistently lower in logged areas than in unlogged areas, while grass cover has been higher in logged areas.
“By 2011, total vegetation was nearly the same, under both treatments,” the study concludes.
Researchers recommended that the study be repeated every four to five years to continue to monitor the forest’s recovery.
“I think this study was a huge benefit to the region,” San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes said. “I don’t think these results are any kind of proof but they are an indicator that suggests, at least from this scan, that there doesn’t seem to be any significant difference in recovery in logged or unlogged areas. In some cases, I think it shows that when it’s done well, salvage logging makes sense.”
A field trip for stakeholders and interested citizens is planned for this spring.
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