Fire management and restoration programs in the Sierra National Parks now reflect much of what researchers like van Wagtendonk and Stephenson have learned about the behavior and ecology of wildfires. The current prescribed burning program, says Stephenson, is highly successful. "It's an excellent example of how research has fed into management and changed management direction."
Nevertheless, says van Wagtendonk, "so much needs to be done, it's hard to get ahead of the game." One major constraint is smoke, which limits the amount of prescribed burning that can be done. Fire managers must work to stay within the bounds of clear air standards, and limit the amount of smoke descending on local communities. Stephenson says that while only a few prescribed fires create a smoke problem, these can erode public support for fire restoration. Continuing education is vital, he says, for people to understand that without some fire, both forests and human communities face the ever-growing danger of a major conflagration.
Interior and Coastal Shrublands
While the decline of old-growth forests has long been a high-profile issue in the West, the widespread loss of arid shrublands has gone practically unnoticed. But in the sagebrush ecosystems of the Great Basin and the Columbia River Basin, fire and a non-native plant species known as cheatgrass are together transforming ecological communities across a vast area. These changes may be irreversible, says USGS ecologist Dr. Steve Knick of the USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center.
Knick studies these transformations at the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in southwestern Idaho. Here, as in much of the Great Basin, the dominant vegetation -- sagebrush and other shrubs adapted to the harsh seasonal climate -- is disappearing. Of the roughly 100,000 hecta
Contact: Catherine Haecker
United States Geological Survey