Fire benefits aspen stands
U.S. Forest Service tries to reverse
decline of aspen tree populations
By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer
To help spur growth of ailing aspen tree
stands, managers at the Sawtooth National Recreation Area are going to try to
Aspen stands in the Intermountain West,
including Central Idaho, are on the decline. SNRA Wildlife Biologist Bobbi
Filbert and Fuels Planner Matt Filbert are working on a project that could help
reverse the trend. Express photo by Greg Stahl
Years of fire suppression, grazing and
drought have contributed to a slow decline of aspen trees across the
Intermountain West. Recent studies indicate that thousands of acres of aspen
forests have been lost in Idaho due to fire suppression.
Aspens rely on disturbance, like fire, to
regenerate, and in the SNRA aspen populations are visibly on the decline. Aspens
are gradually being overrun by coniferous species. As they vanish, an important
form of habitat is vanishing, too.
"I think the key for any healthy system is
disturbance," said SNRA Fuels Planner Matt Filbert. "Until we get some
disturbance back in there, these aspen stands are going to continue to
deteriorate. It’s a scientific fact."
This fall at the soonest, SNRA managers
hope to reintroduce fire to a 400-acre aspen stand in the Pole Creek valley,
which divides the Boulder Mountains from the White Cloud Mountains. The
deteriorating aspen stands are about 2 miles southeast of Smiley Creek Lodge.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, fire
is beneficial to aspen stands in two ways: It kills mature trees, which
stimulates its root systems to produce new stems, and it kills young conifer
saplings that will otherwise eventually out-compete and crowd out the aspens.
If the experiment works in the Pole Creek
area, the forest managers may look to other deteriorating aspen stands in the
"Long term, I think we’d definitely like
to look at other aspen areas on the SNRA," Wildlife Biologist Bobbi Filbert
said. "The results of this project will give us an idea of what to expect in our
"Long term, I think we’d definitely
like to look at other aspen areas on the SNRA," Wildlife Biologist Bobbi
Filbert said. "The results of this project will give us an idea of what to
expect in our other stands." Express photo by Greg Stahl
This isn’t the first time SNRA officials
have tried to revive the ailing Pole Creek aspen stand. In the late-1990s,
biologists used a tractor to rip at the roots of trees on the outside periphery
of the stand. The concept was similar to the premise proposed this summer, only
the disturbance was introduced through manual means.
That effort, however, didn’t work as well
as hoped. Using fire might produce different results.
"It’s a real opportunity," said SNRA Area
Ranger Sarah Baldwin. "We’re looking at it as a learning exercise. Whether we do
more of this will hinge on this project, so I think it’s kind of exciting."
According to biologists, the reasons for
the decline of aspen trees vary.
"It’s not just one thing. It’s several
things working together," Bobbi Filbert said. Fire suppression, overgrazing and
drought are among the reasons aspen trees are increasingly being overrun by
surrounding coniferous forests.
Filbert said retaining aspens on the
landscape offers many benefits. First, because they are wet trees, they produce
effective fuel breaks and could slow down a catastrophic wildfire.
Aspen stands are also rich wildlife
habitat areas. Restoring aspen communities would benefit elk and mule deer that
use the areas for spring, summer and fall range and would enhance the diversity
of habitat available for cavity nesting birds and small mammals as well.
Aspen stands also use less water than
conifers, increasing water yields for stream flows and increased production of
"Our window of opportunity to reverse this
decline of aspen is limited," according to a letter penned by Baldwin. "Many
opportunities to maintain aspen are lost yearly, as old and suppressed stands
become more susceptible to disease and suffer die-back in their root systems."
To get involved:
Comments on the SNRA’s aspen regeneration
project should be directed to Bobbi Filbert, SNRA, HC64 Box 8291, Ketchum, ID
To be most useful, comments should be
received by June 25. For more information, call Bobbi Filbert at (208) 727-5000.