Saturday, June 16, 2007

The 2005 Cavity Lake Fire and Seagull Lake- A Prelude to the BWCA's Future Forest?

For the most part, people on the Gunflint Trail accept wildfire as a natural and necessary occurrence in the woods. Foresters tell us that fires must occur if the forest is going to regenerate itself. And certainly most fires do produce a more healthy forest. However is this the case with all fires?

The other day I boated out to the site of last year's Cavity Lake Fire along Seagull Lake's south shore. A year after this fire, we have been led to believe that the landscape should be teeming with green new ground cover and emerging young trees. Rather than teeming with new vegetation, the landscape, for the most part, was barren with only an occasional young plant emerging. Most distressing of all was that much of the remaining soil that had not been completely sterilized by the intense heat of the fire was now eroding down the steep bank into Seagull Lake.

To understand what is going on at the Cavity Lake fire site a bit of history is in order. The area's last major fire took place in the mid-1890s. That fire produced the area's jack pine forest. Then came the 1999 blowdown, which toppled-over most of these old jack pines. With the trees tipped-over, their seed cones, required to produce the area's future forest, lay "un-released" and rotting on the ground. In 2006 the Cavity Lake fire occurred. The fire driven by high winds and fueled by the tinder dry blow downed jack pine, produced an extremely hot fire that consumed the little viable seed source that remained.

As a result rather than a normal fire that is needed to rejuvenate the forest, the blowdown followed by the Cavity Lake fire has created a situation where the area's jack pine forest cannot regenerate. Where this fire took place there is little or no viable pine seed source from the south shore of Seagull Lake to the top of ridge line above the lake!

To make matters worse, at the site of the Arc Lake prescribed burn area, just east of the Cavity Lake fire, new jack pine seedlings were just beginning to develop when this area was re-burned over during this year's Ham Lake fire. Since the newly emerging trees in the Arc Lake Fire were too young to bear viable seeds when they were burned, how is this area next to the Cavity Lake fire going to regenerate a new forest?

Then If you add together the cumulative effect of the Cavity, Ham, Alpine Fires and the USFS prescribed burns of Arc Lake, Three Mile Island and all the other fires around or near Seagull Lake, you find that in the past three years over 90% of Seagull's lakeshore has been burned. What are the environmental implications of these burns on Seagull Lake and the future of the forest surrounding the lake?

Because most of this area around Seagull where these fires have taken place is located within the BWCA Wilderness, the USFS has turned a blind eye on what is occurring and they are doing nothing. The questions that need to be asked are what are the consequences of doing nothing and what are the consequences of the unabated soil erosion now taking place around much of Seagull Lake? Neither the state, which still has jurisdiction on lakes such as Seagull nor the USFS seems to care.

In a discussion I had with University of Minnesota, forest researcher, Dr. Lee Frelich, this spring prior to the Ham Lake Fire, I asked him, "what is the seed source for the regeneration of the Cavity Lake fire area?" He stated then, that there is no conifer seed source. He went on to say that if nothing is done, eventually brush, aspen, birch and exotics plants will take over. Such forecast goes along with his prediction that without some intervention by man the Boundary Waters is going to be transformed from the conifer forest, that most of us know and love today, into a Savannah hardwood forest more reminisce of south Minnesota.

Is the Seagull's Cavity Lake area the first stage of this prediction? Without action from the USFS to replant the Boundary Waters dwindling conifer forest coupled with the implementation of other bold imaginary forest management strategies, I am fearful that the BWCA is headed in the direction Dr. Frelich has predicted.

Ted Young
Gunflint Trail, MN

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